The accurate reporting of science is critical to conservation. The politicisation of science is, however, not uncommon when it comes to marine issues, especially where money is involved. The Icelandic and Norwegian Governments’ repeated claims that whales are eating all ‘their fish’, is as unscientific as the flat earth theories. (There is a good rebuttal of Iceland’s politicised claims on the WDCS website here – sorry we don’t have anything on the flat earth issue, but as my first degree was in Geological Sciences I am up for the discussion ☺).
The fact that science can be misused is not confined to the issue of whaling. The debate over wind farms is an emotive one and recently the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper (15th March) and the American Newsweek magazine both fell foul of over-interpreting a recent report that confirms that noise affects whales and dolphins. I could have said WDCS has been saying ‘told you so’ but that’s just seems childish.
Other websites have discussed in detail the issue that the report, by scientists from the UK’s University of St. Andrews and others was misused to suggest that the findings would lead to more strandings of Beaked whales around the UK so I’ll not go into detail here, but simply say that the scientific paper does deal with noise, mainly from military sonars, - and the researchers found that one species of whale moved up to 16km away from the area during sonar tests and did not return for three days in one study.
The leap to say that wind farms would cause more strandings brought out the polarised sides of those for and those against wind farms. And that’s when it all gets hazy, because the original studies authors did not say that wind farms cause strandings. In communicating with a US website, Media Matters, Brandon Southall, research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz and one of the reports authors, pointed out that " No one is saying that there won't be any potential disturbance from the installation or operation of wind farms - I personally think that is likely as well at least in terms of temporary responses during construction - and these are going in over large areas, particularly in the North Sea. But to suggest that our results indicate marine mammals are stranded by windfarms is just erroneous and bad reporting. [Email to Media Matters, 4/4/11]"
And here’s the important thing - windfarms may indeed have an effect on cetaceans, but not in the way that the newspapers reported. unfortunately having that important debate now just got that much harder.
WDCS is not fundamentally opposed to wind farms. Indeed we think climate change is a serious threat and should be addressed, but we also think that renewables should be installed in locations where they avoid impacting cetaceans and if they do encroach into cetacean habitat then their siting decision and subsequent construction should be done with the utmost care. That debate needs good science to get the it right and the erroneous reporting noted above just makes it harder, as now many will feel that wind-farms pose no threat what-so-ever.
WDCS has a clear mandate to protect whales and dolphins whatever the threat, be it irresponsible and unnecessary whaling or be it necessary renewable developments. WDCS remains committed to ensuring that we provide the best advice we can, even if others do not always seem to do so, because the politicisation of science helps no one, especially not the whales and dolphins.
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