When we began thinking about ways to celebrate our milestone 50th year, our initial plans called for an in-person symposium focused on our dolphin research and the achievements that we, along with our research partners and colleagues, have made over the past five decades. Though we still hope to make that happen in 2021, when the pandemic hit, we knew we needed to change our plans to a virtual platform.

Preparing for that program gave us an opportunity to review our accomplishments — to really take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going for the next 50 years.

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program is so far beyond anything that I could have imagined when I was 16 and helping Blair Irvine begin tagging dolphins in Sarasota Bay in 1970. We had no idea of the complex lives that dolphins live or that these initial studies and findings would result in a pioneering model for dolphin research and conservation that is used worldwide today.

It was especially gratifying to recognize the people and organizations that have helped us achieve so much for dolphin conservation over the years. It’s humbling to realize how far we’ve come and I’m grateful to acknowledge that supporters like you have helped make this all possible. I want to thank you for being there for us — and for dolphins — along the way.

One key takeaway from our five decades of research is that many dolphins live in coastal neighborhoods for many generations and that, as their neighbors, we humans need to do what we can to protect the health of this shared space — to make sure dolphins can continue to survive and thrive. Another is that we must always incorporate our new knowledge into our conservation efforts.

A new IUCN report “Ex situ options for cetacean conservation” is a good example of this.

The report, released in October 2020, calls for developing a better toolbox to help save species and populations of small dolphins and porpoises most at risk of extinction. It stems from a meeting of cetacean experts (37 experts from 14 countries) that took place in Germany in 2018, where we discussed recent extinctions or risk of extinction of some of the world’s most endangered cetaceans, including Vaquita porpoises, Atlantic humpback dolphins, Yangtze finless porpoises, Franciscana dolphins, and Indus and Ganges River dolphins.

These species are all at risk because of human activities.

The report recommends that marine mammal conservationists around the world work together and act with urgency to consider critically needed conservation measures both in wild environments within the species’ geographic range (in situ) and in protected or modified environments within or outside that range (ex situ) as a holistic framework for species conservation called the “One Plan approach.”

While some may associate the term “ex situ conservation” with animals in human care, ex situ approaches really comprise a variety of actions, including safeguarding animals in protected environments such as semi-natural reserves; initiating research programs to fill knowledge gaps about species’ biology and threats; rescue and release of stranded or otherwise incapacitated individuals; and public engagement programs to promote understanding and support of species conservation.

After 50 years of dolphin research, I’m gratified as I look back on all we’ve learned, but this IUCN report — and the dolphins and porpoises facing extinction because of human activities — are our reminder to us all that there is still much to do.

I thank you for joining us in our journey!

— Dr. Randy Wells