Dr. Howard Rosenbaum is the director of the WCS-Ocean Giants Program, specializing in the conservation of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and manatees.
What's your background?
I have a PhD in Biology from Yale University. Through graduate training and a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, I was able to couple my two primary interests—international field conservation of marine mammals and conservation genetics. Given the complexity of working with and studying marine species in the wild, genetics is a vital tool to learn about their life history.
How long have you been with WCS and what positions have you held?
I first became an affiliate with WCS in 1994 while completing my PhD through the Conservation Genetics Program. I started my fieldwork in 1995 to learn more about the whales and dolphins in Antongil Bay, Madagascar. In 1999, I came on staff as both a field conservation scientist running projects on whales in Africa and Madagascar, and in New York, I helped run WCS’s Conservation Genetics Program. Now I direct our Ocean Giants Program (whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and manatees) as part of our newly created Species Program.
What are some of the most important priorities for marine conservation?
There are many facets to marine conservation, therefore many priorities. Quite a few marine species are threatened or endangered, mostly due to excessive or unsustainable hunting/fishing, by-catch in fisheries, or large-scale commercial exploitation (i.e. whaling). These threats, coupled with coastal and industrial development in essential habitats (breeding grounds, nesting beaches, feeding areas) and impacts from climate change, are of great concern. At WCS, we strategically identify the conservation needs of these threatened populations, develop and implement appropriate species-focused conservation plans, and engage with local, national, regional, and international groups to help save these species.
What do you consider your most important accomplishment so far?
Our genetic work led to designation of the North Pacific right whale as a distinct species: Eubalaena japonica. This has drawn attention to its plight, and allowed federal and state governments in the U.S. to develop a whole set of conservation plans and approaches to save these animals and their important habitats.
I am also proud of the groundbreaking work my team has done to conserve whales and dolphins in Antongil Bay (in Madagascar) and in the coastal waters of Gabon. When we started, there were few, if any, marine conservation initiatives in these areas. Now, we have some of the longest running species conservation projects in these regions, and our work has triggered an ocean conservation ethic to protect these species and their broader habitats for the long-term.
What's your favorite place in the world?
This is a tough one. I have had the good fortune to visit many places, but Antongil Bay holds a special place in my heart—the nature of “re-discovering” the humpback whales since the time of whaling, Madagascar’s unique flora and fauna, and the sheer beauty of the rainforest meeting the sea.
What favorite object/thing do you take into the field with you?
I always make sure I have my hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, foul weather gear, and a good camera. These essentials make the experiences on the water much more enjoyable.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming conservation professionals? Do you have a conservation hero or a mentor?
I had a number of folks who have helped shape my development while at graduate school, in the field and at WCS and I am eternally grateful. Roger Payne gave me my first hydrophone before I embarked on my first international marine mammal project in 1990. I also had the opportunity to work with George Schaller on the rediscovery of Roosevelt’s barking deer—a really inspiring and unique experience. My advice to those coming up in this field is, “find out what drives you.” For me, once I found that for myself, it helped me to create, and benefit from, a number of opportunities.
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