Position Statement 9: The Use of Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) Data For Scientific Publications

Position Statement 9: The Use of Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) Data for Scientific Publications

Potential Scientific Uses of MMO Data

Seismic surveys[1] often occur in areas where little is known about the occurrence of marine mammals and other marine wildlife of conservation concern (e.g. sea turtles, whale and basking sharks, seabirds). This includes some large geographic regions where little scientific research has been carried out (e.g. the eastern tropical Atlantic off the west coast of Africa and large parts of the Indo-Pacific region), but also includes the deep, offshore waters around many continents (since for logistical reasons most marine mammal research worldwide has been focussed on coastal species inhabiting near shore, easily-accessible waters). Consequently, seismic survey vessels can potentially operate as a ‘platform of opportunity’ from which to collect valuable data on the occurrence of marine mammals (and other fauna) for scientific research purposes.

The potential uses of MMO data for scientific research purposes (including specific examples of peer-reviewed scientific papers published by MMOs from their own work on seismic survey vessels and having undergone a data permission process with the Client) may include:

  • Documenting new range states for species, e.g. beaked whales (Weir, 2006a); Clymene dolphins (Weir, 2006b), Fraser’s dolphins (Weir et al., 2008); whale sharks (Weir, 2010), killer whales (Weir et al., 2010), Mobula rays (Weir et al., 2010).

  • Documenting unusual sightings/behaviours, e.g. rough-toothed dolphins in Gabon (de Boer, 2010a); high tolerance levels of feeding bowhead whales in Alaska (Koski et al., 2008, 2009).

  • Describing species morphology/taxonomic forms, e.g. common dolphins in Angola (Weir and Coles, 2007).

  • Describing species composition, seasonality and distribution5, e.g. sea turtles off Angola (Weir et al., 2007); cetaceans off Gabon (de Boer, 2010b); cetaceans around Montserrat in the Caribbean (Weir et al., 2011); cetaceans in the eastern tropical Atlantic (Weir, 2011).

  • Calculating species density [2], e.g. minke whales in the North Sea (de Boer, 2010c).

  • Assessing species habitat preferences5, e.g. cetaceans off Angola and Gabon (Weir et al., 2012).

  • Analysing the potential impacts on species from airgun activity, e.g. cetaceans off Angola (Weir, 2008a); pilot whales in Gabon (Weir, 2008b).

  • Describing the vocalisations of species recorded on PAM systems (no examples from seismic surveys to date).


Suitability of MMO Data for Scientific Analysis

It should be clearly understood that the use of MMO data for scientific purposes is very different from its use during a standard mitigation role. While all data collected on seismic survey vessels comprises mitigation data, not all of it is suitable for scientific analysis. The MMOA acknowledges that a MMO working in a standard mitigation role may have only basic field identification skills (mitigation does not require species-specific identification in many cases) and lack the background in, and understanding of, rigorous standardised data collection. Though the MMOA strongly recommend that MMOs hired for a mitigation role do have additional experience where they have become familiar with both species identification skills and rigorous data collection protocols. . Please see the MMOA’s Position Statement 4 – Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) Qualifications - for more information on this subject.

The collection of data that is suitable for scientific analysis is reliant on the use of experienced and dedicated MMOs who are meticulous about the collection and coding of field data and have sufficient expertise with the fauna in question to correctly identify animals in the field. Datasets where species identification is questionable, or where the basic information required to perform effort-related analyses (e.g. on-effort watch duration, location, airgun activity and associated environmental data recorded accurately and at regular, short intervals) is lacking or inaccurate, are unlikely to be suitable for scientific purposes. Consequently, for data to be useful in a scientific context, the following are usually required:

  • The use of a MMO who is experienced, dedicated, motivated and understands the importance of accurate data collection and data entry

  • The use of a MMO with proven experience in reliable field identification of the species of interest within the study area

  • The routine collection of additional data to support the species identifications recorded in the field, so that independent verification of the data can be performed when necessary. This might include acoustic recordings of the species, or photographs of sightings[3]. It should be noted that many species (for example, dolphins of the Stenella genus, and whales of the genus Mesoplodon) are very similar in external appearance and behaviour, and observers require significant levels of field experience to reliably distinguish between such species in the field (such experience may require several years of intensive survey work in an area to achieve). Photographic verification is therefore a standard method of verification used by the scientific community, and has even greater importance for MMO datasets (where sightings are often distant and seen briefly).

  • Depending on the analyses being carried out, the collection of high-quality supporting effort data. This requires (as a minimum):

    • The collection of GPS positions at sufficiently-small intervals (?1 hr intervals on 3D/4D surveys; every few minutes where turns between lines are acute, i.e. on site surveys) to reliably recreate the track of a seismic vessel (i.e. through turns) to show the location of survey effort.

    • Accurate logging of airgun use and related effort data

    • Accurate logging of environmental data, especially Beaufort sea state (which is known to be a very important factor influencing the detection rate of marine fauna). It is recommended that where imprecise sea state codes are the requirement on mitigation data forms (e.g. the JNCC forms) that precise Beaufort sea state data are collected additionally by the MMO for scientific use (this may also apply to visibility and swell height).


Benefits of Publishing MMO Data

Currently, there are large amounts of potentially useful data being collected by MMOs worldwide that are not being made accessible to researchers and consequently amount to ‘lost data’. The MMOA seeks to encourage publication of appropriate MMO datasets (see above conditions) so that data are available to scientists and, ultimately, feedback into the conservation of marine fauna worldwide.

For the MMO - Using the data collected during seismic surveys is a method of contributing to science and, in the long-term, to the potential conservation of marine species. Scientific publications are also a great addition to a CV, illustrating enthusiasm, dedication, competence and a genuine interest in the topic.

For the Client - Making MMO data accessible for scientific purposes demonstrates Client interest and support for the environment and furthering scientific knowledge, and releasing such data is likely to be of benefit to species conservation. There are no obvious disadvantages to releasing data, assuming protocols are established and followed (see below).

For Conservation - Species conservation is reliant on knowledge of when and where a species occurs. This basic information is often lacking, particularly for mobile marine species, and in deep-offshore and poorly-studied regions (where seismic survey vessels may provide a unique opportunity for data collection). The example scientific publications provided above demonstrate how basic data on species occurrence, distribution, taxonomy, behaviour, density and habitat preferences can be provided by MMO data, with obvious conservation implications.

Protocols for Releasing MMO Data

It is important for all parties concerned that protocols relating to the release, and subsequent use, of MMO data are established at an early stage in discussions. The publication of MMO datasets is still relatively rare, and there are no predefined standardised protocols in place to follow. The procedure will be survey-specific, requiring direct discussions between Client and MMO, and in some cases also the personnel agency providing the MMO to the Client. Ultimately, the MMO is contractually bound to the Client, and it is essential that a MMO receives the Client’s express permission before releasing/publishing any data. This may otherwise violate client confidentiality and result in a breach of contract.

Clients should establish from the outset exactly what their data will be used for, which data will be used, what the intended output will be (e.g. conference presentation, scientific paper) and how they will be acknowledged. Clients should be aware that any published data (e.g. a journal paper) will subsequently be in the public domain, and may be referred to in other scientific papers and used elsewhere. Consequently, the Client should have the opportunity to view and comment on both a draft paper (prior to submission to a journal) and the final version of the paper (if accepted for publication). Permission to use the data should include clauses to this effect, so that Client approval is expressly required prior to submission and final publication. This eliminates any risk of information being published that the Client deems to be confidential or otherwise sensitive. A MMO wishing to publish data from seismic surveys should appreciate that environmental datasets are often considered sensitive and should seek to ensure that the process is carried out courteously and as transparently as possible. This will particularly be the case for data concerning potential impacts of airgun activity on marine fauna, and a MMO should clearly state whether or not airgun impacts will be considered within the proposed paper. The MMOA recommends that (as a minimum) a MMO should inform the Client of:

  • The aims/objectives of using the data (providing a working title and a synopsis of likely content).

  • Exactly which data will be included.

  • Where they intend to publish the data.

  • How the Client will be acknowledged.

  • At which stages the Client will be contacted to approve the paper content.

The MMOA also emphasises that in instances where permission to publish is refused then a MMO should remain courteous, professional and accept that decision.


This is one of ten position statements produced by the MMOA. All of the MMOA Position Statements are available for download in a single document in addition to viewing on this website. To download this document please click here.


de Boer, M.N. (2010a). First record of a white rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis) off West Africa including notes on rough-toothed dolphin surface behaviour. Marine Biodiversity Records, 3: e66.

de Boer, M.N. (2010b). Cetacean distribution and relative abundance in offshore Gabonese waters. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 90: 1613–1621.

de Boer, M.N. (2010c). Spring distribution and density of minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata along an offshore bank in the central North Sea. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 408: 265–274.

Koski, W.R., Funk, D.W., Ireland, D.S., Lyons, C., Christie, K., Macrander, A. M., and Blackwell, S.B. (2009). An Update on Feeding by Bowhead Whales near an Offshore Seismic Survey in the Central Beaufort Sea. Paper SC/61/BRG3 presented to the IWC Scientific Committee, June 2009. 24pp. (available at: http://iwcoffice.co.uk/_documents/sci_com/SC61docs/SC-61-BRG3rev.pdf)

Koski, W.R., Funk, D.W., Ireland, D.S., Lyons, C., Macrander, A.M., and Voparil, I. (2008). Feeding by bowhead whales near an offshore seismic survey in the Beaufort Sea. Paper SC/60/E14 presented to the IWC Scientific Committee, June 2008. 14pp.

Weir, C.R. (2006a). Sightings of beaked whales (Cetacea: Ziphiidae) including first confirmed Cuvier's beaked whales Ziphius cavirostris from Angola. African Journal of Marine Science, 28: 173–175.

Weir, C.R. (2006b). First confirmed records of Clymene dolphin, Stenella clymene (Gray, 1850), from Angola and Congo, South-east Atlantic Ocean. African Zoology, 41: 297–300.

Weir, C.R. (2008a). Overt responses of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), and Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) to seismic exploration off Angola. Aquatic Mammals, 34: 71–83.

Weir, C.R. (2008b). Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) respond to an airgun ramp-up procedure off Gabon. Aquatic Mammals, 34: 349–354.

Weir, C.R. (2010). Sightings of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus Smith 1828) off Angola and Nigeria. Marine Biodiversity Records, 3: e50, 2010.

Weir, C.R. (2011). Distribution and seasonality of cetaceans in tropical waters between Angola and the Gulf of Guinea. African Journal of Marine Science, 33: 1–15.

Weir, C.R. and Coles, P. (2007). Morphology of common dolphins (Delphinus spp.) photographed off Angola. Abstracts of the 17th Biennial Conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, Cape Town, South Africa, 29 November – 3 December, 2007.

Weir, C.R., Ron, T., Morais, M. and Duarte, A.D.C. (2007) Nesting and pelagic distribution of marine turtles in Angola, West Africa, 2000–2006: occurrence, threats and conservation implications. Oryx, 41: 224–231.

Weir, C.R., Debrah, J., Ofori-Danson, P.K., Pierpoint, C. and Van Waerebeek, K. (2008). Records of Fraser’s dolphin Lagenodelphis hosei Fraser 1956 from the Gulf of Guinea and Angola. African Journal of Marine Science, 30: 241–246.

Weir, C.R., Collins, T., Carvalho, I. and Rosenbaum, H.C. (2010). Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Angolan and Gulf of Guinea waters, tropical West Africa. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 90: 1601–1611.

Weir, C.R., Calderan, S., Unwin, M. and Paulatto, M. (2011). Cetaceans observed in the waters around Montserrat, eastern Caribbean Sea, 2007 and 2010, including new species state records. Marine Biodiversity Records, 4: e42.

Weir, C.R., Macena, B.C.L. and Notarbartolo di Sciara, G. (2012). Records of rays of the genus Mobula (Chondrichthyes: Myliobatiformes: Myliobatidae) from the waters between Gabon and Angola (eastern tropical Atlantic). Marine Biodiversity Records, 5: e26.

Weir, C.R., MacLeod, C.D. and Pierce, G.J. (2012). Habitat preferences and evidence for niche partitioning amongst cetaceans in the waters between Gabon and Angola, eastern tropical Atlantic. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 92 (8): 1735-1749

[1] This document refers to seismic surveys which remain the most frequently-used platform for MMOs carrying out industry-related mitigation work. However, MMOs work from a range of additional platforms (e.g. rigs, drill ships, pipe-laying barges, military frigates, decommissioning platforms, airplanes) and this document also applies to data collected during those surveys.

[2] The MMOA acknowledges that publishing certain information (e.g. distribution, density and abundance estimates, habitat preferences) from platforms that are emitting high-amplitude sound is always subject to limitations arising from the unknown responses of animals to the sound source. Such limitations should always be described in a transparent manner and accounted for in analyses wherever possible.

[3] It is acknowledged that it is not always possible to photograph every sighting at sea. However, for scientific purposes it should be routine for MMOs to attempt to photograph sightings whenever possible and for the best images from each sighting to be logged as supporting data. Verification of the identification of animals at sea is essential when describing new species range states or documenting rare/unusual species or occurrences. In many cases, due to the high potential for confusing cetacean species in the field, such information would not be accepted by the scientific community without supporting data.