Initiative to save Taiwanese white dolphins from extinction

Taiwanese white dolphins (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis) live in shallow nearshore waters along the west coast of Taiwan (= eastern Taiwan Strait). Researchers from Taiwan and elsewhere have been studying this small and declining population (currently < 75 individuals) since its discovery in 2002 (Wang et al. 2016).

The Taiwanese white (humpback) dolphin is endemic and restricted to a very small area along the nearshore waters off western Taiwan. The dolphin subspecies is declining in number due to several major threats such as fisheries interactions and coastal industrialization. Photo Credit: Jordan Hoffman

The Eastern Taiwan Strait Sousa Technical Advisory Working Group (ETSSTAWG) was formed in 2007 at the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s biennial conference in Cape Town with the aim to identify, characterize, and help address threats to the subspecies. About 58% of the dolphins in this population bear serious scars that are mostly caused by fishing gear (Wang et al. 2017); freshwater diversion for human use has depleted flow into estuaries;  chronic industrial pollution releases toxic smoke and liquid effluent into dolphin habitat; and factories are built on ‘reclaimed land’ in nearshore waters, reducing and degrading dolphin habitat (Ross et al. 2010).

A Taiwanese white dolphin with injuries from fishing gear. Photo credit: John Wang

Some progress has been made over the past decade. The Government cancelled a permit to ‘reclaim’ 4,000 hectares for the KuoKang petrochemical facility after serious concerns were raised about the implications for dolphin habitat. The Government also agreed to designate Major Wildlife Habitat (akin to ‘critical habitat’ in some other jurisdictions) with boundaries that largely mirrored those proposed by the ETSSTAWG, but significantly with no provisions to protect potential habitat, omitting a substantial section of known dolphin habitat, and leaving waters within 50 m of shore undesignated. Also, local and central governments have, since receiving proposals from the ETSSTAWG for a variety of measures to mitigate the impacts of fisheries on the dolphins, increased enforcement of fishing bans that were already in effect, pursued buy-backs of nearshore fishing licenses, and incorporated dolphin concerns more coherently into management practices and environmental impact assessments. Without these actions, Taiwanese white dolphins would likely be in an even steeper population decline.

Two Taiwanese white dolphins surface close to intensive industrial development along the coast of Taiwan. Photo Credit: John Wang

Unfortunately, however, an ominous new threat has emerged over the past year: a massive array of offshore windfarms that are to be installed in coastal waters within and around dolphin habitat. To address this threat, the ETSSTAWG and Taiwanese conservation groups – Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association and Matsu Fish Conservation Union – convened a team of experts to assess the risks of windfarm construction and provided recommendations for ‘beyond best practices’ for industry, as well as guidance for the Government. General guiding principles for the wind energy sector included: i) Locate turbines away from areas where dolphins occur, including areas where the noise is likely to disturb dolphins; ii) Use engineering practices that are ‘better-than-best’ at reducing noise and disturbance during construction; and iii) Reduce the threat of fisheries interactions, both immediately and during windfarm construction and operation, since the construction activity may exacerbate the impact of fisheries by forcing fishermen to fish closer to shore, thus increasing fishing effort within dolphin habitat. The expert panel noted that if construction of the windfarms is designed and carried out properly, Taiwan may gain a ‘cleaner’, more secure source of energy and at the same time give hope for the survival and recovery of its endemic dolphin subspecies.

References

Ross, P.S., Dungan, S.Z., Hung, S.K., Jefferson, T.A., MacFarquhar, C., Perrin, W.F., Riehl, K.N., Slooten, E., Tsai, J., Wang, J.Y., White, B.N. Würsig, B., Yang, S.C. and Reeves, R.R. 2010. Averting the baiji syndrome: conserving habitat for critically endangered dolphins in Eastern Taiwan Strait. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 20: 685–694 (2010)

Wang, J.Y., Riehl, K.N. Klein, M.N., Javdan, S., Hoffman, J.M., Dungan, S.Z., Dares, L.E. and Araújo-Wang, C. 2016. Biology and conservation of the Taiwanese humpback dolphin, Sousa chinensis taiwanensis. Advances in Marine Biology Series: Conservation of the Humpback Dolphins (Sousa spp.) 73: 91-117.

Wang, J.Y., Riehl, K.N., Yang, S.C. and Araújo-Wang, C. 2017. Unsustainable human-induced injuries to the Critically Endangered Taiwanese humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis). Marine Pollution Bulletin 116:167-174.

 

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Vaquita on the verge of extinction

CIRVA (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita) met again in April 2017, just 5 months after the committee’s last meeting. The meeting report, which was officially released today at the IWC Scientific Committee meeting in Slovenia, points out that the vaquita is on the verge of extinction. Five dead vaquitas were recovered in March and April 2017. It was confirmed that at least three of these animals had been killed in gillnets (the other two were perinatal animals). CIRVA concluded that despite the enormous efforts by the government of Mexico, illegal fishing activity for totoaba has continued at a very high level. Thus far in the present fishing season, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), as part of a multi-institutional program with the government of Mexico to remove fishing gear, has retrieved over 150 active totoaba gillnets. SSCS also has observed a considerable amount of illegal fishing activity. CIRVA welcomed the Government of Mexico’s “Agreement Prohibiting the Use of Gillnets for Commercial Fishing in Waters of Federal Jurisdiction in the Northern Gulf of California.” However, the Committee reiterated its previous recommendation that the sale or possession of gillnets on land and at sea should be illegal in the area of the current gillnet ban and on adjacent lands.  

The full report can be read here

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Lost Indus dolphins in the Beas River, India

Indus River dolphins (Platanista gangetica minor) inhabit the Indus River system of Pakistan and India.  Over the last 150 years, numerous irrigation barrages (gated dams) that divert river water into canals have been constructed in this system.  As a result, the range of Indus dolphins has declined by approximately 80% since the 1870s due to habitat fragmentation and reduced river flows.  Survey results suggest that the entire subspecies numbers well under 2000 individuals and it is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.  Indus dolphins persist in 5 barrage-partitioned sections of the Indus mainstem in Pakistan, and a tiny isolated population persists in the Beas River in India, some 600km away from all the others.

The current distribution of Indus River dolphins. The Beas River is located on the far eastern side of this map (segment 17 of the system). Reproduced from Braulik GT, Arshad M, Noureen U, Northridge SP (2014) Habitat Fragmentation and Species Extirpation in Freshwater Ecosystems; Causes of Range Decline of the Indus River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor). PLOS ONE 9(7): e101657. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101657

As recently as last year, there were estimated to be between 18 and 35 Indus dolphins in the Beas River above Harike Barrage (Shahnawaz Khan 2016).  During periods of low flow, they have been observed to move downstream into the head pond above the barrage, which includes the Harike Wildlife Sanctuary.  On 27th March, 2017 the flow of the Beas River was virtually stopped in order to allow maintenance works to the barrage and canal gates.  River flow dropped from approximately 30,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) to just 1,100 cusecs.  Many aquatic animals perished including freshwater turtles and fish.  An extensive search was made for the resident river dolphins, but only 4 have been located to date.  It is feared that the remaining dolphins became stranded and died in shallow pools, or slipped through the barrage into downstream areas near the India-Pakistan border where the river is almost always completely dry and where they will also eventually perish.  However no dead dolphins have yet been reported despite the extensive search.

This sad situation demonstrates the vulnerability of river dolphins that today live only in heavily managed rivers.  If the needs of wildlife are not considered in the management of rivers and barrages, more environmental catastrophes can be expected.

References

Khan, M. S. 2016. Abundance and distribution modelling for Indus river dolphin, Platanista gangetica minor, in Beas River, India. Current Science 111 (11) 1859-1864.

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Distribution and abundance of cetaceans in the European Atlantic – SCANS-III

A large-scale international survey for whales, dolphins and porpoises in European Atlantic waters has estimated a total of more than 1.5 million cetaceans in the study area in summer 2016. This survey is the third in a series that began in 1994 (SCANS) and continued in 2005 (SCANS-II) (SCANS stands for Small Cetaceans in the European Atlantic waters and North Sea). It was a collaboration among scientists in nine countries bordering the Atlantic and was coordinated by the Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews, in Scotland, UK.

Observer Lea David looking through the bubble window of the SCANS-III survey aircraft. Photo credit Nino Pierantonio

Three ships and seven aircraft surveyed an area of 1.8 million km2 from the Strait of Gibraltar in the south to Vestfjorden, Norway in the north, over a 6–week period in summer 2016. The data were collected using line transect sampling methods designed to allow correction for animals missed on the transect line, without which estimates of abundance would be negatively biased. This was achieved using two semi-independent teams of observers on the ships and using the “circle-back” aerial survey method, in which the aircraft flies a loop to re-survey the same piece of transect.

White-beaked dolphins seen during SCANS-III aerial surveys. Photo credit: Hans Verdaat

Teams of observers searched along 60,000 km of transect line, recording thousands of groups of cetaceans from 19 different species. The most abundant species were harbour porpoises (467,000 animals), common dolphins (468,000) and striped dolphins (372,000), with a further estimated 158,000 either common or striped dolphins. Numbers of other species of dolphins estimated to be present were 28,000 bottlenose dolphins, 36,000 white-beaked dolphins and 16,000 white-sided dolphins. Deep-diving whales that feed primarily on squid in offshore waters were estimated to number 26,000 long-finned pilot whales, 14,000 sperm whales and 11,000 beaked whales of several different species. Of the filter-feeding baleen whales, 15,000 common minke whales and 18,000 fin whales were estimated to be present.

Observer Linn Lehnert entering data. Photo credit Steve Geelhoed

For harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins and minke whales in the North Sea, the series of abundance estimates shows no statistical support for a change, in other words, a stable trend in abundance over the 22 years covered by the surveys. For other species in the region, at least one more survey will be needed in the future before any trend can be assessed. Results indicate that the shift seen in harbour porpoise distribution in the North Sea from the northwest in 1994 to the south in 2005 was maintained in 2016, with highest densities found in the southwestern North Sea, and north and east of Denmark.

The new estimates of abundance will be integral to cetacean assessments undertaken for OSPAR ’s Quality Status Report (OSPAR is the mechanism by which 15 Governments & the EU cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic.), and for the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive assessments of Good Environmental Status. The results also make it possible to determine the impacts of bycatch and other anthropogenic pressures on cetacean populations, fulfilling a suite of needs under the EU Habitats Directive and the UNEP Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic, North-east Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS).

The full report can be read here.

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Workshop on Important Marine Mammal Areas in the South Pacific

The IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force invited 23 marine mammal researchers and other experts from 14 Pacific countries to Apia, Samoa, for the second in a series of regional Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) workshops, 27-31 March 2017. This followed the first IMMA workshop in the Mediterranean in October 2016 sponsored by the MAVA Foundation.

The South Pacific IMMA workshop, sponsored as part of the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative through the German government’s International Climate Initiative (GOBI-IKI), recommended a preliminary total of 29 candidate IMMAs (cIMMAs) and 16 areas of interest (AoI). These will now go to an independent review panel.

The Samoa workshop was hosted and facilitated by the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). The initial results were announced by the Task Force members attending the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference in Tonga, 4-6 April. This event, as well as the IMMA workshop, formed part of the “Year of the Whale” celebrations in the South Pacific organized by SPREP and the countries of the South Pacific.

The region covered by this latest IMMA workshop was vast—from the Hawaiian archipelago in the northern hemisphere to the network of island states including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, among others. Various cIMMAs were mapped for humpback whales, sperm whales, spinner dolphins, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, Cuvier’s beaked whales and rough-toothed dolphins, as well as dugongs.

For more information, go to https://www.marinemammalhabitat.org/second-imma-workshop-held-samoa-helps-celebrate-year-whale-south-pacific/

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Announcement of the Second Indian Ocean Cetacean Symposium

The Second Indian Ocean Cetacean Symposium will be held by the Marine Research Centre (www.mrc.gov.mv) in the Maldives in 2019.  This is to follow on from the first Indian Ocean Cetacean Symposium that was held almost a decade ago, in July 2009, (see report here), and coincides with the 40th anniversary of the declaration of the International Whaling Commission’s Indian Ocean Sanctuary. The meeting will offer an opportunity for active cetacean researchers from across the Indian Ocean region to meet, to present findings, and to plan collaborative research activities. It will also bring together representatives of international organisations concerned with cetacean research and conservation.
Dates and venue are now being finalized, but will likely be for three days in May-June 2019. If you would like to register to receive further information please contact: Ms Mariyam Nazeefa, mnazeefa@mrc.gov.mv
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New Infographic from Arabian Sea Whale Network

After months of planning, the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) has finalized an infographic designed to raise awareness of the unique nature of Arabian Sea humpback whales and the urgent conservation challenges they face.  The infographic is intended for dissemination to a wide range of stakeholders, including government agencies responsible for conservation management, fisheries managers, port authorities and other industries that impact the marine environment.  Some ASWN members are also distributing electronic and printed versions to schools and coastal communities, and are translating the infographic into Arabic, Farsi, and Hindi in order to reach a wider target audience.  It is hoped that this awareness-raising tool will encourage stakeholders to engage and invest in the conservation efforts required to conserve this population and enable its recovery.

Arabian Sea Whale Network Infographic

ASWN is also working on the development of a regional online data platform that will allow members to archive cetacean sightings and strandings data in a common format to facilitate Arabian Sea-wide comparisons and analyses. ASWN is working with the developers of Flukebook, an open-source cetacean photo-identification and data archiving platform. As well as archiving data from directed cetacean research, the new regional data platform will facilitate the collection of third-party and opportunistic whale sightings data, such as the wave of reports made by fishermen from Pakistan late in 2016.  In countries where dedicated cetacean surveys have not yet been organized due to lack of funding or security concerns, these third-party reports can provide extremely valuable insight into whale distribution and threats.

For more information, please contact Gianna Minton (gianna.minton@gmail.com), Tim Collins (tcollins@wcs.org) or Marina Antonopoulou (mantonopoulou@ewswwf.ae)  Click here to download a high resolution PDF (75 MB) of  the  infographic.

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Progress protecting Mekong River dolphins undermined by proposed dams

Somany Phay, Frances Gulland, and H.E. Srun Limsong, Deputy Director General of the Fisheries Administration, Royal Government of Cambodia. Photo Credit: Peter Thomas

In January 2017 an international workshop on the Critically Endangered freshwater population of dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) in the Mekong River was held in Kratie, Cambodia [click here to read report]. This was the fourth such workshop convened by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – Cambodia and the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, all of them organized and conducted in collaboration with the CSG and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission [click here for more details].

At this workshop the external advisory group concluded that significant progress had been made on implementing most of the recommendations from the 2014 workshop, thanks to the commitment of the WWF-Cambodia team, the Fisheries Administration, the River Guards and the local community. The River Guards have worked hard to confiscate gillnets in the core dolphin zones and the consequent reduction in entanglement risk may have been a significant factor contributing to the recent increase in calf survival. The River Guards nevertheless continue to face a number of obstacles and gillnetting remains a serious threat.

River guards burning confiscated gillnets. Photo credit: Peter Thomas

Unfortunately, the threat of hydropower development, addressed in detail at the 2014 workshop, is now a reality for this population. Since the construction of the Don Sahong dam near the Laos/Cambodia border began in 2014, a local subpopulation of dolphins has declined from five to only three individual dolphins and there is now virtually no hope for its persistence. Progress on slowing the decline of the Mekong dolphin population, which currently numbers only about 80 individuals, could

be completely nullified by construction of the proposed Sambor and Stung Treng hydropower dams. If built, these dams will eliminate or transform most of the dolphins’ remaining riverine habitat. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed recently between the Cambodia government and a private company to carry out feasibility studies on the two new dams.

Construction of the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in Laos. Photo Credit: Peter Thomas

Other populations of Irrawaddy dolphins were also discussed, including the Critically Endangered Mahakam (Indonesia) and Ayeyarwady (Myanmar) freshwater ones as well as those in the estuaries and mangrove channels of Bangladesh.

 

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Jan 2017 update on the decline of the Vaquita

As noted in the 16 December 2016 posting on this site, CIRVA (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita) met in November to update its findings and recommendations concerning vaquita science and conservation. The meeting report, which was officially released today, concludes that the species population has continued its precipitous decline. It numbered only around 30 individuals (95% CRI 8 to 96) by autumn 2016, a decline of nearly 50% since 2015, according to results from the acoustic monitoring program (following the published methodology of Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2016 and also Taylor et al. 2016).

Illegal fishing, mainly for totoaba, has continued at alarming levels despite best efforts by the Mexican Government (including the Mexican Navy) in collaboration with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Once again CIRVA stressed, given that the current two-year rangewide ban on gillnets will expire in April 2017, the sale, possession and use of gillnets must be permanently banned in the northern Gulf of California if the vaquita is to survive. Reluctantly, but on the basis of extreme concern over the safety of vaquitas in their natural habitat, the committee also recommended  that the Mexican Government put in place a carefully planned, step-wise attempt to determine whether some vaquitas can be caught and held in a temporary sanctuary until they can be safely returned to a gillnet-free environment (http://www.vaquitacpr.org)

 

 

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Progress on Chinese White Dolphin (CWD) Research and Conservation Initiative

The project previously described (see 29 June 2016 news item) has proceeded as planned over the past half-year. A stakeholder workshop organized by Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) took place in Hong Kong on 10-13 January 2017. More than 55 participants, including fishermen, government officials, scientists, and NGO representatives from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and several foreign countries, engaged in discussions aimed at developing a conservation action plan for the humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) in the Pearl River Estuary (PRE). This meeting built upon work led by Phil Miller of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) to produce a Population Viability Analysis. It was organized and chaired by Onnie Byers, Chair of the CBSG.

An adult humpback dolphin surfaces in Hong Kong waters of the Pearl River Estuary. Photo credit: Lindsay Porter

The framework document to be produced from the workshop, which will include a draft action plan, is expected to be available by the end of May 2017 and will be posted on this website. The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) has been investing in CWD conservation efforts and provided funding for both Miller’s PVA work and the January 2017 workshop. OPCFHK will apply for further funding to support its continuing oversight of implementation of many of the research and conservation actions called for in the action plan. Participation in the workshop by scientists and managers from mainland China was encouraging; their continued engagement will be critical to success.

Action plan implementation is to be guided by the independent Steering Committee consisting of Bob Brownell, Frances Gulland, Phil Hammond (replacing Rohan Currey), Randy Reeves (chair), Wang Ding, and Randy Wells. It should be noted that in addition to the CSG members on the Steering Committee, CSG members Tom Jefferson and Lindsay Porter attended and, very importantly, have been contributing to a collaborative effort led by Wells to combine all available photo-identification material on humpback dolphins in the PRE and make this data set available to all participating CWD researchers, to enable more rigorous population analyses.

 

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