Critically endangered Atlantic humpback dolphins (Sousa teuszii) in the near shore waters of southern Gabon. © Tim Collins

Integrated Conservation Planning for Cetaceans (ICPC) is a volunteer group of conservation professionals formed in response to the desperate situation facing critically endangered dolphin and porpoise species. Many of these species and populations have distributions that entirely overlap areas used intensively by people. Most of those species are declining due to unsustainable numbers killed in gillnets. For some, we know that extinction is imminent without determined and swift action to save them. The overarching goals of ICPC-supported initiatives are to fill critical knowledge gaps, then develop and help to implement integrated conservation plans for the most threatened dolphin and porpoise species and populations.

Integrated conservation planning, also known as the “One Plan approach” was developed by the IUCN SSC’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group. This approach uses multidisciplinary teams to devise and implement an integrated conservation plan, involving as many stakeholders as possible in the conservation planning process, including local community members. These teams work together to consider all conservation measures and tools that may be needed to save a species from extinction, both inside and outside the species’ natural range. Integrated conservation plans include provisions to make sure that actions are implemented and progress monitored, so that the plan can be adapted as needed.

Why do we need integrated conservation planning for cetaceans?
Gillnets frequently trap and drown dolphins and porpoises. Many endangered cetacean species and populations occur in rivers or coastal habitats that are used intensively by people for fishing and other forms of livelihood. In such situations there are often no regulations and no social safety net or government support to help people switch to other means of living. Coastal and riverine species are also suffering from the effects of climate change, pollution, and fragmentation of populations by development and habitat destruction. Cetaceans in such intensively used habitats are declining, and nearly all of the recent attempts to significantly reduce gillnet mortality and reverse declines have been unsuccessful. Thus far, the only effective solution to gillnet bycatch is to prohibit fishing with gillnets, and this is not currently feasible in most situations and areas (although it should be noted that in 2020 the Chinese government banned all forms of fishing in the Yangtze river for a ten-year period, to promote recovery of the Yangtze’s biodiversity).

Ongoing priority projects supported by ICPC include programmes to enhance field research on endangered species and fill gaps in knowledge of the distribution, abundance and threats to these species. ICPC activities include:

• helping researchers design and conduct surveys,
• providing skilled veterinary support to conduct health assessments as part of rescue operations or tagging and tracking studies,
• working with local researchers to develop health assessment protocols, training field personnel, and
• building capacity for in-country veterinary care.

A Transparent and Precautionary Approach Emergency interventions to save endangered dolphin and porpoise species are needed, and ICPC will follow IUCN guidelines (e.g. IUCN 2013 and IUCN 2014) when considering which conservation measures are both justified and necessary. Emergency interventions that may be justified for endangered cetaceans include:

• rescue and treatment of individual animals or stranded groups;
• translocations judged to be necessary because of imminent threats such as a disease outbreak or environmental disaster;
• safeguarding animals (insurance populations) in protected environments, such as semi-natural reserves to reduce their susceptibility to threats like gillnets;
• handling of animals as part of conservation research aimed at preventing species extinction, such as tagging studies to determine the true range and habitat requirements of threatened populations.

Such measures must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, including a risk-averse cost/benefit analysis, transparency, and participation of a diverse set of stakeholders. The IUCN guidelines mentioned above provide a rigorous and precautionary process for considering if, when, and how such emergency measures should be used as part of an integrated conservation plan.

Two Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) surfacing in the Guimaras Strait, central Philippines. © Louella Dolar