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Are there too many UK Marine charities?

By Lizzy Dening

Whales and dolphins are popular mammals, frequently voted as Britain's favourite animals in wildlife polls. As a result of this popularity, a large number of marine conservation societies have been set up in the UK.

Web searches bring up around thirty cetacean-specific groups and charities, many endorsed by famous naturalists, or TV presenters. But is the number of charities disproportionate to the amount of cetaceans in British water? And could public support be better used for the conservation of less popular animals or by streamlining the number of charities?

What do these charities do?
Most groups follow four main functions: scientific studies, funding conservation work, (such as removal of fishing gear that traps dolphins), pushing for law changes to protect wildlife, and educating people about wildlife.

Barometer for the well-being of the ocean.
Although charities focus on cetaceans, these mammals act as a barometer for the well-being of the ocean. In comparison to land-based ecosystems we know relatively little of how life underwater works, so it makes sense to have volunteers and scientists following clues visible from wildlife. Due to the research from these charities we are becoming aware of the damage which noise pollution is doing to our coastal ecosystems.

The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust says of its research, "By knowing more about the distribution, behaviour and lifecycle of these animals it enables us to make more informed and wiser decisions about the conservation and management of these populations".

What can be learnt through strandings?
The work which charities do to help stranded cetaceans includes both the immediate action of getting animals back to sea (with minimal stress), and research undertaken into why mass strandings occur. Despite different charities undertaking separate research, most organizations share their data with local universities.

Charities use their scientific reports to campaign and lobby the government about the action to take for ocean wildlife, for example, altering fishing nets to not trap dolphins, and leaving areas of the sea protected from fishing to allow re-growth and regeneration.

Marine Charities

  • Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) - http://www.wdcs.org.uk/ 
    Current news about laws affecting cetaceans, volunteering opportunities, dolphin adoption scheme.
  • Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
    - http://www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk/
    Concentrates on local schemes, such as education and surveys in the Hebrides. Also offers volunteer work.
  • Orca - http://www.orcaweb.org.uk/ 
    - Large charity, collecting information on all cetaceans around Europe. Has merchandise, volunteer schemes and links to publications.
  • Marine Connection http://www.marineconnection.org/index.html 
    - Investigative articles about issues such as captive dolphins, and the effects of sonar. Information about marine mammal conventions, and links to publications.
  • Seawatch Foundation http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/ 
    Charity for UK-based cetaceans, supported by Kate Humble. Contains news stories, volunteer schemes, research schemes. Offers adult training courses.
  • Marine Conservation Society (MCS)Http://www.mcsuk.org/ -
    UK charity for protection of all marine life. News on all marine laws, volunteer scheme, adopt-a-beach scheme.

Dolphins- charismatic representatives of the whole ecosystem
An important thing to remember is that although cetacean charities are focused on Britain's largest, and arguably most charismatic mammals, any law changes campaigned for will improve the quality of British water for a huge variety of species.

For dolphins and whales to be healthy, they need to be finding enough fish and krill to eat. For these smaller organisms to be plentiful, the overall ecosystem of the sea has to be kept unpolluted, by noise or chemicals. A healthy cetacean population is a good indication of a healthy ocean. Therefore, work to protect dolphins will benefit the ecosystem as a whole.

If using the image of a stranded whale, or a netted dolphin, appeals to peoples' sympathies, then why not use it? Any animal which encourages people to learn more about wildlife, and donate either time or money, can't be a bad thing.

Promoting British travel
A further bonus of cetacean charities is that they promote travel to British coastlines. Most charities run whale and dolphin-watching cruises, with an emphasis on respecting the mammals, whilst educating the public. Some also have education centres, and all of them have comprehensive websites with information. Travel within Britain is both good in terms of reducing carbon emissions from flights, and in terms of keeping money in our economy, not to mention the benefits of people seeing cetaceans in the wild, instead of in aquariums.

But are so many similar charities confusing?
The possible downside of having so many charities promoting the same work is that the market may become saturated; with people unsure which charity to give their money to.

Whilst this is possible, most of the charities focus on a particular area of coast, or specialise in the best trips to see a specific cetacean. If people have decided to volunteer for or give to a charity, it is hard to believe they would be too daunted by the choices available.

All the charities are basically campaigning and fundraising for the same outcome, not only to protect precious British mammals, but to conserve an entire ecosystem.