Thursday, March 14, 2013

The 3rd Southeast Asian Marine Mammal Symposium (and the importance of having a group to call your own)

Participants of the 3rd SEAMAM symposium in Langkawi (pic by Suwat Jutapruet)

I’m a cetologist, and I’m proud of what I’m doing for a living. However, I do have to say that getting funding for mainly marine mammal works is not always straightforward. Nowadays, I still have to do other works (still inside the compound of marine conservation) to stabilise my micro-finance, while also getting $$ for the cetacean works I always want to do. Often, I felt lonely and a bit desperate because of that. I’m one of Indonesia’s very few cetologists, but expanding this ‘business’ seems to be a very hard endeavour. With the dimming ‘glamour’ of species-based conservation since the last decade and the shifting towards ecosystem-based management (EBM), experts on migratory mega fauna species around the world are striving to fit their species of interest into the whole EBM scheme. Whether attaching it to Marine Protected Area, fisheries, climate change issues, etc, anything that will make the conservation of migratory mega fauna species still making sense in the EBM era.  It can work... but really, I cannot say it has been a stroll in the park. 

Most of the time, I felt like doing this all alone. Yes, I do have some friends scattered around Indonesia (in the Marine Mammal Indonesia mailing list we created in 2004), but our conversations have been up and down (which means that I didn’t do my job as the moderator properly). I do connect with them, and I do share similar dreams with them.  But I still couldn't shake off the feeling of doing this alone without any significant support from outside world.

‘Thank God’ for the 48 short finned pilot whales that stranded in Sabu in October last year. I know, it sounds awful and I don’t mean it that way. What I meant is that finally the government realised the importance of pushing forward marine mammal conservation, by way of stranding management. I started to join the national discussions on stranding protocols last December, and started to feel like I can really use my brain for the animals I love the most: the whales and the dolphins.  

Going to Subic Bay (Philippines) last month (4-9 Feb) to learn about stranding management was another refreshing change. I met many passionate stranding rescuers and veterinarians from at least seven countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, China Mainland and HK, Malaysia and Cambodia). I had a lot of discussions about how to improve the Indonesia stranding network with my fellow Indonesian delegates (Sekar Mira, Februanty Purnomo, Efin Muttaqin, and Danielle Kreb – who is a Dutch lady, but might as well a local with her Samarinda accent!). Subsequently, I then became a part of the committee to form/organise the SE Asian stranding network.  I started to feel like I’m part of something bigger than my own fear (of not being able to be a full time cetologist). 

Then came the 3rd Southeast Asian Marine Mammal (SEAMAM) Symposium in Langkawi last week (4-10 March). And I realised that I was on the right track of my life. For during the week-full symposium, I found not only an affirmation of my professional mission, but also friends and colleagues to walk the path together with me. 

After the intense meetings, we still found some time to go to the beach...

Of course we don’t just drink beer and sing and play Jenga there in Langkawi (oops! There you go!). We had a really busy schedule, thanks to the power-boosted committee. Starting at 8:30am, ending at 5 or 5:30pm, then after dinner we had extra sessions for 1.5-2 hours. We had only two days (Monday and Thursday, I think), where we didn’t have after-dinner sessions. I had two presentations I had to give (Tuesday and Sunday), and I co-chaired several meetings. But we (including myself) had fun with all those. We had LOTS of fun. I literally could feel the energy tingling on my fingertips. The passion, faith and energy from those people in the meeting room... so contagious! 

We talked about the threats faced by marine mammals in the region and grouped them into five major threats: 1) coastal and riverine development, 2) by-catch, 3) oil and gas exploration and exploitation, 4) pollution/debris; and 5) boat traffic and marine tourism.  Each country was then requested to break down research priorities to address the five threats. Indonesia highlighted seven research priorities in the following order: 1) population status and distribution, 2) habitat use and habitat threat analyses, 3) by-catch analyses, 4) impacts of oil and gas establishment, 5) impacts of cetacean watching industries, 6) stranding analyses, and 7) water quality and noise analyses. I am thinking of moving the stranding analyses to #3 before by-catch, because I think stranding is a canary in the mine that alerts us of something wrong with our rivers and oceans.  

We had a stranding workshop on the last day of the symposium (Sunday, 10 March), which was the follow up of the Subic Bay meeting. More people have expressed interest in joining the network and subsequent trainings and meetings the network would provide. So, it will be busy years ahead for SE Asia!

The last (but not least) aspect I’d like to report back here is the intention to create our own ‘club’ to cater to the marine mammal research and management needs in SE Asia. SEAMAM is basically an event (the first one was in 1995, the second in 2002), but we kinda felt it was an entity/organisation as well (or, the periodic event starts to evolve into an entity). We did feel the need to organise ourselves, to form our own club/organisation that facilitates our common needs and goals. The fact that most of us belong to a similar age group (hmmm... a large range actually, between 25-45, but still!) makes it more interesting. I (and certainly many of us) feel that we're really in it together, for better or worse (for better, I hope).

Some of the whackers/super whackers (L-R): Jom (PHL), Ong (TH), Aung (MYN), Fairul (MY), Ellen, Guido (AU), Lindsay and me (ID). Our Italiano fan Ale Ponzo on the foreground (pix by Mark de la Paz)

Thus, eventually we agreed to form a committee to make sure that this entity will eventuate soon (this term is relative, but I’d envision in a year). The committee is divided into the organising committee (dubbed ‘the whackers’) and the advisory committee (dubbed ‘the super-whackers’). The whackers are Guido Parra (Australia), Samuel Hung (China, Hong Kong SAR), Fairul Jamal (Malaysia), Aung Myo Chit (Myanmar), Chalatip Junchompoo (Thailand), Jo Marie Acebes (Philippines), and myself (Indonesia). The super-whackers are Ellen Hines, Lindsay Porter, John Wang and Louella Dolar.  Our task is to prepare a document for the formation of the SE Asian entity and make sure that the entity is progressing in time. We haven’t got around to discussing about the geographical boundaries (there were discussions to include Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Japan – at least as observers). 

We discussed a bit whether we want to have an independent organisation or eventually attaching ourselves to a larger, international entity like the Society of Marine Mammalogy (e.g., as their SE Asian chapter). Nothing is set on stone yet, everything is still under discussion (or even just brimming inside our own minds). 

However, we kinda did come up with a name: SEAMAMA. We kinda skip the abbreviation detail, but we agree that the name should be pronounced the way Italiano pronounces ‘Mamma’ (cue to our one and only Philippine-based Italian participant, Alessandro Ponzo). I have to admit, the idea stuck in my head and I love it, and I don’t care what the SEAMAMA stands for, as long as it is pronounced the way Italian ‘Mamma’ is pronounced!

But, the name aside, I personally think it’s important for marine mammal scientists in this region to have a group we call our own. Asians tend to be a bit shy and reserved at international meetings. There are exceptions, of course (I’d say Indian scientists are very articulate and outspoken, and this is a compliment). However, I have to admit I did have some sinking feelings at times which made me want to hide under the table. For instance, I attended one biennial marine mammal symposium in Quebec (2009), and I have to tell you, I felt really small. All those smart people talking about cool things; I really did feel like I wasn’t doing something significant. Whether it was true or not (I don’t think it was), I do feel that a group of Asians talking about Asian marine mammal problems can be more productive than transporting a group of Asians and expect them to be very active at international meetings. Particularly because Asians tend to face similar developing country problems faced by many Asian nations. We know what we’re talking about. We know why at times (many times, perhaps), we cannot be confrontational. We know that patience and persistence are needed to solve conservation issues in Asia. 

We know we can do good things in our own region. We just need to have more faith in ourselves. A group of our own can help us towards that end.

Thanks to Pak Achmad Yanuar, Fikri Firmansyah and Dana Siswar for the help with the Indonesia team. Thanks to Danielle Kreb, Benjamin Kahn, Muhajir and Purwanto for the help with the Indonesia Country Report. Special thanks to Ellen Hines, Louisa & Katrina Ponnampalam, Fairul Jamal, etc for organising the meeting, and to Tara, Justine and the other note takers for the hard work. You guys made our Langkawi experience greater and sweeter.

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