CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scott Baker, an Oregon State University conservation geneticist and cetacean specialist whose work was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove,” has been named one of four 2011 Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation.
The prestigious Pew Fellowship program provides a three-year stipend to distinguished scientists for conservation projects designed to address critical problems facing the world’s oceans. Baker, the associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, will use the fellowship to study populations of dolphins in the South Pacific.
There have been few studies of dolphins around islands of the South Pacific, thus scientists are unsure how many species there are, whether local populations from different islands are genetically distinct, and how they are faring in relation to their historic abundance.
“What little work that has been done suggests that dolphins show a lot more local fidelity than previously assumed,” Baker said. “Although some dolphins are found in large populations in the open ocean, others form much smaller communities attached to individual islands or island chains. One of the goals of our research is to determine whether the distribution of these island populations is influenced by seascape characteristics, and how genetically distinct these different populations might be.”
Baker’s study will focus on a vast area of the South Pacific stretching from Micronesia in the west to Polynesia in the east, an area roughly the size of the North Atlantic Ocean. The region has some of the largest protected marine areas in the world and Baker’s study will help determine if these are sufficient in scale to sustain local dolphin populations.
“Dr. Baker’s project can help guide policy decisions for creating permanent areas, not only to protect dolphins, but other highly migratory creatures as well,” said Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group.
A professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, Baker’s laboratory is located at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport on the central Oregon coast. In his genetic analysis laboratory, he conducts forensic work on the tissues of whales and other cetaceans. Baker has documented the under-reporting of fin whales in Japan, the threat to minke whales of commercial “bycatch” whaling, and the illegal sale of whale meat as sushi in restaurants in Seoul, South Korea, and Los Angeles.
Baker’s DNA identification of dolphin meat, potentially tainted with mercury contamination, was prominently featured in “The Cove,” where he was seen in a portable genetic laboratory working in a cramped Tokyo hotel room. The provocative film documented the hunting of dolphins in the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji, and the high levels of mercury found in the dolphin meat sold for human consumption.
Baker is also an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and supervises graduate students there and at OSU. He chairs the executive committee of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, frequently testifies at meetings of the International Whaling Commission, and edits the prominent Journal of Heredity, a publication of the American Genetic Association.
The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has awarded 120 fellowships to individuals from 31 countries since it began. The program is managed by the Pew Environmental Group in Washington, D.C.