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Learning to Swim with the Big “Fish” (Marine Mammals)

By Roxanne J Carini,
Knauss Fellow,
Marine Mammal Commission


In graduate school, I would quip that I studied everything about the ocean, except what lived there! So, imagine my surprise when I wound up at the Marine Mammal Commission for my year-long Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.


Falling in love with the world of marine mammals didn’t take long! But, not for the reasons you may think. Even though I can’t deny that whales are the ultimate charismatic megafauna, sea otters are irresistible when they float on their backs holding hands, and polar bears are awe-inspiring Arctic hunters, what I am most excited about is breaking out of my academic science silo and approaching my work like any marine mammal would—with the understanding that everything is connected. 



For instance, did you know that Antarctic killer whales will use their bodies to generate waves strong enough to knock a seal off a chunk of ice and right into their mouths? I spent seven years studying the physics of breaking waves for my Masters and PhD and never had a killer whale for a professor… until now! Marine mammals (and marine wildlife, in general) are natural physical oceanographers, and I am learning more about my own area of expertise by diving into their world at the Marine Mammal Commission.



What is the Marine Mammal Commission…and how does a physical oceanographer fit in?


The Marine Mammal Commission was created by Congress, as part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, to provide independent, science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies addressing human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems. 


Though it is a mouthful, this mission statement motivates a wide range of work integral to the protection of marine mammals. I’ll give just a few examples.


Oversight Responsibility


The Marine Mammal Commission is small, but mighty. It consists of thirteen staff, nine scientific advisors, and three Commissioners. Much of the staff and all of the scientific advisors and Commissioners have expertise in marine ecology and resource management, with specialties ranging from veterinary medicine, statistics, marine acoustics, and biology, to international affairs and co-management. 


To fulfill the Commission’s oversight duty, staff consult with the Committee of Scientific Advisors and the Commissioners to write letters to the federal agencies tasked with permitting activities and making new rules that impact marine mammals (e.g., research permits, wind farm siting, oil and gas exploration, and Navy sonar testing). Importantly, these letters become part of the public record.



Reading my first Commission letter was like attending my first Shakespeare play– I knew the actors were speaking English, but the vocabulary and cadence were so foreign to me that I couldn’t understand the players or the plot. Over time and with some added background from the playbill, my ear adjusted and the story became clear. 


With regards to a letter about Navy sonar exercises, I was able to apply my physical oceanography training, which taught me how the frequency band of sonar determines how its sound travels through water, to understand how certain frequency bands of sonar can interfere with the hearing and vocalization of different whales and dolphins and therefore negatively impact their ability to feed and communicate.


Congressional Outreach


The Marine Mammal Commission also serves a resource for Congress. I often trade in my jeans and Chacos for a full suit and accompany our Executive Director, Peter Thomas, and our Communications Officer, Brady O’Donnell, on trips to the Hill.


Sometimes our goal is to share science about marine mammals and ocean health as they relate to a given state or district. Other times we consult about what types of legislation would be beneficial for a vulnerable marine mammal population.



During my first several briefings, I listened, observed, learned, and did not speak… because I’m still rather new to this marine mammal world. But recently, I’ve been able to contribute to the conversation!


And while Hill meetings are efficient and focused, they aren’t as intimidating as you might think. Congress-people and their staffers appreciate when we take the time to translate science and provide real-world examples.


For instance, after the Marine Mammal Commission’s annual meeting (held in Kona, Hawaii this year— lucky me!), we scheduled briefings with Representatives and Senators from Hawaii. 


In those meetings, I told my story about visiting three rehabilitated monk seals that were about to be released to the sandy shores of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. This is one of many successes of the Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital, since its opening in 2014. 


However, I was also responsible for putting on my physical oceanographer hat and explaining how sea level rise is swallowing critical habitat for monk seals and how ocean warming and changing ocean circulation patterns are impacting their prey species. 


In the end, we celebrated conservation victories while motivating dedication to sustaining conservation efforts.



Advancing Marine Mammal Science



The Commission maintains a modest research grants program, and its staff, Commissioners, and Scientific Advisors help organize marine mammal science conferences, participate in working groups, and serve on steering committees.



As a Knauss Fellow, I help the Commission’s Scientific Program Director, Sam Simmons, with her role and responsibilities on the Biology and Ecosystem Panel of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). GOOS has a well-established, standardized observation network for ocean physical properties and climate metrics, but the same does not yet exist for marine mammals. 


Why not? Well, you can stick a thermometer anywhere in the water and measure its temperature continuously– temperature can’t swim away from you! But marine mammals can, and that makes taking measurements much trickier. For a given species, you’d want to know how many there, how they are distributed over a given region, what range of ages exist in each population group, and you’d want to know how all of this changes over time.


All of these observations require a lot of time, energy, and money. And there are incredible observation efforts taking place all around the world. However, those data are stored in a million different places (some publicly available online, some kept private) and a million different formats (self-made surveys, imagery, biological samples, etc.). 


The goal of the marine mammals working group is to help unify these efforts to build a data network and a human network that can answer the big questions: What is the current status of life in the ocean? How is it changing? And how do those changes affect ecosystem function, health, and services? 


Swimming On


After my year at the Marine Mammal Commission, I will proudly tell anyone who asks that I studied the physics of the ocean and helped protect what lived there!


This year has given me a taste for working in the in-betweens: in between physical oceanography and ecology and biology, in between science and policy, and in between the federal government and a suite of diverse stakeholders. It has changed the way I imagine my future and I am incredibly grateful for my Knauss Fellowship with the Marine Mammal Commission.


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