Cetaceans at the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Leaders Meeting in Abu Dhabi

From October 6th to 9th, 2019, the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) in alliance with the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) held the Fourth SSC Leaders Meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  This meeting has taken place every four years since it was first held in 2008, and provides an opportunity for all of the committees, subcommittees, specialist groups and  Red List Authorities that are part of the SSC to meet, compare notes, become inspired by one another’s work, and discuss ways to strengthen and improve future work.

In a mixture of plenary presentations and smaller parallel breakout sessions, the roughly 300 participants addressed a wide range of issues including:

  • Best practice in Red List assessment;
  • The Assess-Plan-Act cycle, with an emphasis on conservation action;
  • Learning from experience (successes as well as failures);
  • Engagement and input on global policy, such as the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • Conservation successes and innovations in the United Arab Emirates; and
  • Partnerships for conservation, including announcement of a major new partnership between the IUCN SSC and the Indianapolis Zoo (more details here).


Poster giving details of the mission, goals and activities of the Cetacean Specialist Group displayed at the SSC meeting

The Cetacean Specialist Group was represented by Barbara Taylor, the CSG Red List Authority focal point,  Erich Hoyt and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, who also represented the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, and Gianna Minton, who attended in her capacity as a member of the SSC Marine Conservation Committee.  This strong representation allowed the CSG to ensure that cetacean perspectives were represented in the marine-, freshwater-, and mammal-themed break-out groups, and to contribute to discussions on the future of the SSC.


The CSG team were also able to learn from the many other species and conservation experts at the meeting representing taxa ranging from fungi through sharks, large cats and everything in between. It was fascinating to learn more about how other specialist groups tackle the challenges of their Red List assessments (some groups need to assess 10’s of thousands of species!), management of membership, and making the most of the volunteer efforts of members.


The Red List Authority training clarified that listing dates are assigned according to the date of assessment submission and that submission by the deadline does not guarantee that an assessment will be formally published/released with the next set of listings.


The meeting also provided several opportunities for participants to be updated on the work of the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, and most notably the identification and implementation of Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs). Since the last Leaders Meeting in 2015, more than 130 IMMAs have been identified across the Indian and South Pacific oceans, as well as in the Mediterranean Sea. For more information, read here.


Randall Reeves, chair of the CSG, was unable to attend the meeting but was awarded the prestigious Sir Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit for his contributions to both the CSG and International Whaling Commission.


Finally, the meeting concluded with the the Abu Dhabi Call for Global Species Conservation Action, a statement issued on behalf of all participants calling for urgent and effective action to address the unprecedented, unsustainable and growing impacts on wild species from human activities.

2 Updated Cetacean Red List Assessments Published in July 2019

Assessments or reassessments of 2 cetacean species, subspecies or populations were published on the IUCN Red List in July 2019. This is in addition to the 5 published in March 2019, 35 published in November 2018, 10 in July 2018, and 19  in November 2017.  A total of 71 cetacean assessments have now been published in the last 2 years.

The updated assessments were of the Rough-toothed Dolphin (Steno bredanensis) and Melon-headed whale (Peponocephala electra) both of which assessed as Least Concern (LC) (see Table 1 for details).  Work on updated and new assessments is continuing and we expect more to be published in December 2019.

Table 1 – Summary of updated assessments and new assessments published in the 2019-2 (July) Red List update. (NT = Near Threatened, DD = Data Deficient, CR = Critically Endangered, EN = Endangered, LC = Least Concern).

# Species/Subspecies Common name Taxonomic level Category Status change
1 Steno bredanensis Rough-toothed Dolphin Species (global) LC  No change
2 Peponocephala electra Melon-headed Whale Species (global) LC No change


The Red List status and documentation for the 89 currently recognised cetacean species as well as 39 subspecies or subpopulations can be found on the IUCN Red List website (redlist.org).  Of the 89 species, 29% are assigned to a threatened category (i.e. CR, EN, VU, NT) and 30% are considered DD although ongoing reassessments of Data Deficient species are likely to result in some of them being reclassified in the near future (see Table 2). It should also be emphasized that there is strong interest in completing additional assessments of subpopulations that are known or thought to be at higher risk than the species as a whole (e.g. Killer Whales, Belugas, Dusky Dolphins).

Table 2. Summary information on Red List status as of November 2018.

Category Species Subspecies/subpopulations Total
Critically Endangered 3 16 19
Endangered 10 11 21
Vulnerable 7 8 15
Near Threatened 6 0 6
Least Concern 36 0 36
Lower Risk/Conservation Dependent* 0 1 1
Data Deficient 27 3 30
Total 89 39 128


*This is no longer a recognized category and this assessment (for the Bowhead Whale, Bering-Chuckchi-Beaufort Seas subpopulation) is out of date.



Cetaceans in the Western Indian Ocean


In early 2019 cetaceans in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas were the focus of two important scientific meetings. The first was to identify Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) within the region, and the second, conducted under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission Bycatch Mitigation Initiative, was to look at priority areas in the region for cetacean bycatch interventions.


Important Marine Mammal Areas.
Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) are defined as discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. The Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas IMMA identification workshop took place on March 4th-8th 2019. The workshop was held in Salalah, Oman, and involved 38 marine mammal scientists and observers from 15 countries, with several more scientists contributing to assessments and proposals remotely. A total of 55 candidate important marine mammal areas, (cIMMAs) were identified which is the largest number proposed from a single workshop to date. Thirteen areas of interest (AoI) were identified as locations where further research is merited. The experts identified cIMMAs for the Arabian Sea humpback whales, Indian Ocean humpback dolphins and concentrations of Omura’s whale, as well as three different populations of blue whales. The cIMMA proposals are now undergoing peer review, and those that are approved will be added to the eAtlas later in 2019. The preliminary report from the workshop can be downloaded here:


IWC Bycatch Workshop
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) held a technical workshop on Bycatch Mitigation Opportunities in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea from 8-9 May 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya. The workshop was attended by 50 participants working in 17 different countries. The workshop included a range of presentations on innovative approaches to assessing, monitoring and mitigating bycatch, as well as some hands-on sessions where participants worked together to identify potential bycatch hotspots in the Western Indian Ocean, where further research and mitigation efforts can be directed. The Report of the IWC Workshop on Bycatch Mitigation Opportunities in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea is available for download here.

It was recognised that cetacean bycatch is generally very poorly documented in the region and that this presents a major barrier to understanding the scale of the issue and making progress towards bycatch reduction. The workshop concluded that a more systematic assessment of bycatch information is critical, particularly for small-scale and medium-scale fisheries. Given the prevalence of small to medium-scale fisheries using passive fishing gears (gillnets, traps, etc) across the Indian Ocean region, and the lack of financially viable and effective mitigation solutions for these gears, the workshop concluded that further work to develop and trial low-cost and low-tech solutions was urgently needed. The utility of existing tools and approaches for assessing and monitoring bycatch in the numerous small to medium-scale fleets was also recognised, including rapid bycatch risk assessments, remote electronic monitoring and crew-based observer schemes. The workshop concluded that bycatch reduction efforts should aim to apply multi-disciplinary and multi-taxa approaches wherever possible. The workshop resulted in a number of recommendations for collaborative work to reduce bycatch in the region that can be read in detail in the final report.

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