Charting the seas of science

When he’s not at the bow of an inflatable rubber boat in the rolling, grey Southern Ocean, firing satellite tags into the blubber of the world’s largest marine mammal, you might find Dr Nick Gales island hopping around southern Australia studying sea lions, engaging in international whaling issues, surfing a break off the Tasmanian coast or plying the Tasman Sea in a yacht.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s new Chief Scientist certainly leads an adventurous life. But in a 30 year career devoted to marine mammal issues — from the tropics to the Antarctic, at local and international scales — two things have remained constant; his love of the sea and his desire to see good science inform good policy and management.

As Chief Scientist, Nick has an exciting opportunity to apply skills honed while working across the interfaces of industry, science, government and conservation, to a broader remit. While some aspects of his work in the marine mammal realm will continue, Nick must now add Antarctic climate, marine ecosystem and terrestrial science to his list of priorities. He also has a large group of scientists within and outside the Antarctic Division to look out for, and the funding, administrative and communication tasks that come with the job.

But as you might expect from someone experienced in negotiating a better deal for whales through the International Whaling Commission, or working with fisheries and tourism operators to protect sea lion or dolphin populations, Nick is taking it all in his stride.

 ‘Whether it’s seabird bycatch mitigation or collaborating on ice drilling projects that deliver into the climate science domain, or understanding the importance of studying different parts of the atmosphere, it’s not that different to what I’ve already done in terms of working within government to ensure that science is delivered into policy and management,’ Nick says.

‘I’m lucky to be coming into this job at a time when we’re starting a new science strategic plan that defines the importance of translating science into policy and management outcomes, because that’s what I enjoy and that’s how I’ve spent most of my career.’

Nick began his career as a veterinarian, working briefly in a mixed animal practice after university, before a position arose at a new marine mammal park in Western Australia. Here he was responsible for the care of bottlenose dolphins, Australian sea lions, New Zealand fur seals, little blue penguins, fish, rays and sharks. But he was more interested in research than captive animals, so when a job came up at the Australian Antarctic Division, he jumped at it.

‘My interest in Antarctica was piqued by a university lecturer who had spent time there and I had seen a presentation about an expedition to Heard Island in 1983, which added to my determination to get there. So I applied for a wintering expeditioner position and spent two and a half years working as a biologist on elephant seals and penguins, spending some months on Heard Island and the winter of 1986 at Davis station,’ Nick says.

After a brief stint back in Western Australia during which he completed a PhD on Australian sea lions, Nick was offered a job with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, running their marine mammal program and dealing with a particularly gnarly issue.

‘Their endemic sea lion was interacting with fisheries and there was a front page newspaper fight, with the fishing industry saying the conservation organisations were going to close them down and the conservation organisations saying the sea lions were going to become extinct, and the government sitting somewhere in the middle,’ Nick says.

With his wife, young son and three-week old daughter, Nick sailed their yacht across the top end of Australia, down to Coffs Harbour and across the Tasman to the windy New Zealand capital of Wellington, where they spent the next four and a half years.

‘The sea lion issue taught me a lot,’ Nick says.

‘It was my job to assemble a team, work out what the scale of the problem was, understand more about the biology of the sea lions, and work with industry to reduce the sea lion bycatch down to limits that still allowed the population to increase. It was my first real taste of taking science directly into a management forum and seeing management outcomes happen as a result of the science; and it worked really well. We got industry to modify their gear, we closed the fishery early on three separate seasons, and we brought the bycatch down.’

By this time Nick was entrenched in the marine mammal science community and was collaborating with scientists on projects that provided both academic and management outcomes. When he returned to Western Australia he spent three years running the state government marine mammal program, working on a spectrum of marine mammal issues, such as strandings, boat strikes and bycatch, relating to dugongs, dolphins, seals and whales.

In 1999 Nick was approached by the Australian Antarctic Division to do an independent assessment of the hot iron branding of elephant seals on Macquarie Island. This controversial issue had hit the media and gained the attention of the Federal Environment Minister. Nick reviewed the program, assessed the seals on the island, spoke to the scientists and the people concerned about the work, and delivered a report that contributed to the ultimate decision to cancel the branding program.

‘It was a challenging job because it was such a polarised debate,’ he says.

But it was really just the start of Nick’s involvement in polarised issues. He subsequently moved into a permanent job with the Australian Antarctic Division, developing a marine mammal program in the Southern Ocean. The research focussed on the interaction of marine mammals with the krill fishery and fed into models used to inform the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Nick was asked to contribute to the development of a similar science delivery model for the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

‘I started going to the IWC Scientific Committee meetings, and we put a structure in place that ensured science contributed directly to, and developed a strong conservation agenda for, the Commission,’ Nick says.

While Japanese so-called scientific whaling tends to dominate media coverage of whale conservation, Nick says the IWC  deals effectively with a range of other conservation issues, including aboriginal and subsistence whaling, bycatch, ship strikes, the effects of noise, and the role of whales in ecosystems.

Recently the IWC reviewed its future, with a major focus on negotiating the differences between countries that want to end the moratorium on commercial whaling (established in 1987), and countries that never want to see commercial whaling again.

‘Australia’s position is that there is no place in the modern world for commercial whaling. Some countries aligned with us, but there was a lot of pressure to allow some limited commercial whaling to proceed,’ Nick says.

‘That negotiation was incredibly difficult and in the end we didn’t land a solution to the impasse. But the moratorium remains intact.’

Australia is now in the International Court in the Hague over the issue. At the same time two major whale science initiatives began. The first was the development of conservation management plans where multiple countries work together to manage non-whaling threats to whales in their region. The second was large, regional research partnerships, such as the Southern Ocean Research Partnership (the first of these collaborations is between Australia and, currently, nine other countries), where countries pool resources to conduct prioritised and strategic research.

‘This year saw a real shift in the business of the IWC, with a whole range of important conservation and research outcomes being reported and discussed,’ Nick says.

‘So even though we didn’t resolve the irreconcilable difference on whaling, these initiatives are a core part of the IWC now. It’s a different organisation now in that it has a substantively advanced conservation agenda and a lot of that was principally driven by Australia.’

Closer to home, Nick was instrumental in establishing the Australian Marine Mammal Centre in 2006, within the Australian Antarctic Division. The Centre acts as a central point for researchers in the Australasian region to seek funding and to collaborate on marine mammal research that answers the questions government needs to inform policy. Through the Centre a wide range of applied research is funded around Australia, including work developing genetic and tagging techniques to acquire information about the diet, age, population structure and migration patterns of marine mammals. A range of regional projects have also been funded in places such as Thailand, Fiji, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea, to address conservation issues there and to build the capacity of the regions to continue the research.

Nick’s experiences will set him up well for the challenges that no doubt lie ahead. He is philosophical about the realities that frustrate solutions to complex conservation and other global problems.

‘Decisions are made by governments on the basis of science and a whole range of other things to do with politics, economics and society. These other major influences may trump science as a priority — just look at the climate debate — and you need to understand that science is just part of the process,’ he says.

‘But, as scientists, we have a critically important responsibility to influence and affect government decisions by delivering and clearly communicating the relevant science to ensure that policy is well informed.’

Nick is excited about this next stage of his career and delivering a science plan that he had a role in developing. Like the previous science strategy, this 10 year strategic plan is focussed on good science, but it’s also heavily weighted towards government priorities and delivering science to end users.

And while he won’t be messing about in boats in the name of scientific research quite so much, Nick will still find opportunities to indulge his passion for surfing. He is also building his retirement plan — an aluminium yacht that he and his wife plan to sail around the world.


Australian Antarctic Division