On September 27, 2013 Diego Alejandro Taboada, President of ICB, received a phone call. According to the caller, ICB had received the BBVA Foundation’s Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America for “its extraordinary contribution over more than forty years to the understanding and conservation of the southern right whale.”
The BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation “recognize organizations carrying forward environmental conservation policies and projects, and the efforts of communicators who have placed their abilities at the service of protecting our natural heritage. Established in 2004, the three categories carry a combined cash prize of 580,000 euros, placing them among the foremost international awards in the realm of the environment.”
ICB was given the award,
for its extraordinary contribution for over 40 years to the understanding and conservation of southern right whales, a species recovering from overhunting. ICB’s projects and research extend from monitoring the population to establishing marine protected areas and the identification of new threats, such as climate change. At the same time, their initiatives have created an international awareness of an emblematic species and the development of a baseline for its conservation, in a way that is compatible with the sustainable development of costal communities.
The Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas is an Argentine non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of whales and their environment through research and education. It was founded in Buenos Aires in 1996 when it established an affiliation with Ocean Alliance to conduct the Right Whale Program in Argentina. The Right Whale Program was founded in 1970 by Dr. Roger Payne when he began studying the population of southern right whales that use the gulfs of Península Valdés, Argentina as a calving ground. Dr. Payne discovered he could photo-identify individual right whales from the pattern of callosities on their heads, in the same way that finger prints are used to identify humans. The study has become the world’s longest continuous study of a large whale based on following the lives of known individuals, some for more than 40 years.
Diego Taboada describes how it felt to receive the call, “It is a huge honor to receive this award. Non-lethal research and the growth of whale watch tourism have changed our perspective on these marine giants, increasingly seen as indicators of the health of our oceans. In the past it was whaling that was the main threat to the animals’ survival, and campaigns rightly focused on getting the practice banned; but now, the risks have multiplied and threaten not just whales but marine biodiversity as a whole. So to protect them is also to protect ourselves!”
The identification of individual whales has permitted researchers of ICB and Ocean Alliance, working in cooperation with scientists in a variety of institutions in Argentina and abroad, to study the size and growth rate of the population, monitor unique biological phenomena such as gull attacks on living whales to eat their skin, and the inheritance of foraging locations. They have also shown that climate change is affecting the reproductive rates of right whales, along with studies of the whales’ behavior, nutrition, genetics, toxicology and health. ICB provides results from all of its studies to Argentine authorities responsible for managing the whales and their habitat and to the general public through the media and educational programs.
“Our research has generated a scientific understanding of the biology of the southern right whales that serves as a basis for developing strategies for the conservation of the whales, their habitat from on a small to a large scale,” states Dr. Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director of ICB. “This award recognizes the progress of our efforts, and is a great stimulus for continuing with what we are doing. We feel profound gratitude to those who have helped since the beginning of this work, and the members of the Jury of the BBVA Foundation for having recognized the strength and significance of the conservation of marine biodiversity,” emphasized Dr. Sironi.
“Long term research programs are essential for monitoring the status of animal populations, but they are extremely difficult to sustain through time. The Award has given us a great momentum to continue and strengthen our scientific studies and conservation and educational activities,” concludes Taboada.
Ocean Alliance President Dr. Roger Payne congratulated the team: “I am totally delighted with this wonderful news. It is a wonderful act of recognition for the work that all of you have done for the whales! I hope that it will make it possible for you all to also keep working for at least five years and in that time you will be able to do the best work of your lives for which you will become best known.”