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The Joint Cetacean Data Programme – maximising the value of cetacean survey data

By Niki Clear, JNCC Marine Mammal Advisor and JCDP Coordinator

Marine JCDP

Ensuring appropriate management and conservation measures for cetacean species requires an understanding of their distribution and population at the very least. However, monitoring cetacean species poses a real challenge. These animals spend only a tiny fraction of their existence at the sea surface where they are visible to us. They also have complex life histories, can be elusive – particularly deep-diving species – and are often wide-ranging in nature.

Sophisticated survey and analysis techniques have been, and continue to be, developed to address the challenge of counting such species, which are only briefly observed. However, field research is considerably resource-intensive and costly, which means the little data that are collected is of high value and could add much more to our knowledge than just its original intended purpose. Therefore, by collating data, the evidence-base from which we base our management and conservation decisions upon can be vastly improved.



Collating data from multiple sources to get a better understanding of cetacean populations is not a new concept. This approach has, for example, provided the basis for marine protected area designations, for national and international assessments such as OSPAR, and for informing management decisions around marine noise mitigation. But the process to bring these data together has often been long-winded and labour intensive. Historically, data have been collated for a single purpose and the process has been repeated for each new need, with permission for use of those data for that purpose only. For combined analyses, additional permissions often need to be agreed, and the data need to be transformed into a standard format.

JNCC recognised the importance of these collated data analyses but was also aware of the associated challenges, and this has been the driving force behind the Joint Cetacean Data Programme (JCDP) – which aims to provide a platform for collation, standardisation, storage and access of cetacean survey data. The JCDP is a collaborative programme led by JNCC, governed by the ICES Working Group on the Joint Cetacean Data Programme (WGJCDP), and supported by stakeholders from a wide range of sectors with representatives from across the north-east Atlantic. 

The JNCC project team has been working with ICES and an assembled steering group of experts to achieve the vision of the JCDP, to:

“Promote and facilitate cetacean data standardisation and maximise value through collation and enabling of universal access.”

Gemma Harper, CEO of JNCC has said: “I am proud to see JNCC leading the way on mobilising key cetacean survey data through the Joint Cetacean Data Programme. The JCDP provides a pivotal step in improving our understanding and will underpin better decision making on the protection of both commonly seen and elusive cetacean species. The JCDP is an exemplar of collaborative working and data sharing across regions and north-east Atlantic countries to achieve our common goal of better management and conservation of the marine environment and ecosystems.”

Funded by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the JCDP aims to standardise cetacean survey data collected from vessel and aerial platforms, and make this universally accessible for science, conservation, and management. The JCDP has been many years in the making and provides a streamlined way to store and access the data to fill evidence gaps to better understand cetacean abundance and distribution across the North-east Atlantic region.

APEM, who have contributed to the development of the JCDP and sit on the programme steering group have said: “As a provider of aerial digital surveys, APEM was keen to engage with the JCDP steering group and has assisted by providing comments and advice to develop the JCDP from a data provider and data user’s perspective. APEM are pleased to have supported the programme to date and we look forward to seeing it develop and using the tool for future work. It will be a great resource for environmental assessments!”

The JCDP team has created an online Data Portal, hosted in the ICES Data Centre, which allows people to submit, search and download cetacean survey data. This is supported by the JCDP Information Hub, a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the JCDP; giving background information about the project, a series of resources to help data submitters and users, and guidance on how to design high-quality cetacean surveys. To accompany the data portal and Information Hub, the JCPD has developed an agreed data standard; a set format for cetacean survey data which ensures that the data is of high quality and can easily be collated. In addition, a standard for the associated  metadata records has been produced. These metadata records provide additional information about the data, such as how it was collected, who collected it, and how it was prepared for the JCDP – accompanying information which is so important for effective use of the data.

We are encouraging individuals, organisations, industry, institutions, and government bodies to contribute to the JCDP, to maximise the value of the data, to add to the growing shared resource, and to be part of the movement towards open and accessible research data.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to and been a part of this initiative to date. We are proud of what has been achieved and are looking forward to seeing how the JCDP will contribute to cetacean science and conservation in the future.



Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) ©Nikki Taylor

Two Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) ©Nikki Taylor

Group of Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) © James West

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