Yet Another Threat to Taiwanese White Dolphins Is Imminent

By Randall Reeves (CSG Chair) and Louisa Ponnampalam and Brian Smith (CSG Asia Coordinators)

 

On 13 February 2022, an article appeared on this website concerning the existential threat of net entanglement to Taiwan’s endemic humpback dolphin subspecies (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis; known locally as Taiwanese white dolphin). After nearly 15 years of this dolphin being IUCN red-listed as Critically Endangered (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/133710/122515524#amendment) and five years of its being listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, essentially nothing significant has been done by the Government of Taiwan to address entanglement, or any of the numerous other threats to this very small and declining population (thought to have numbered only about 60 individuals in 2017, the survey year for the most recent abundance estimate reported by Araújo-Wang et al. 2022).

 

It recently came to the CSG’s attention that a possibly final, decisive blow to the Taiwanese white dolphin’s survival is on the horizon. Taiwan’s parliament is apparently moving ahead with a proposed Taichung Outer Port Area Expansion Project, which would ‘reclaim’ (in other words, transform into an industrial moonscape) another large portion of nearshore marine and estuarine habitat in the heart of the dolphins’ distribution.

 

John Wang, the world’s leading expert on Taiwanese white dolphin’s and recipient of the international Society for Marine Mammalogy’s 2021 Conservation Merit Prize (https://marinemammalscience.org/funding-and-awards/dr-john-wang-receives-the-2021-society-for-marine-mammalogys-conservation-merit-prize/), pointed out after analyzing extensive data on dolphin movements and ecology, that the proposed expansion of Taichung Port to enable construction and installation of a liquified natural gas (primarily methane, a powerful greenhouse gas) terminal would only exacerbate an already desperate situation. Wang’s report, prepared in 2018 at the request of the Wild At Heart Legal Defense Association (a local NGO concerned about the Taiwanese white dolphin’s dire state), concluded that for many sightings by his research group, the animals were moving quickly through waters fronting Taichung Port, which had already been artificially deepened by dredging and made much deeper than the shallow waters preferred by humpback dolphins. Expansion of the harbour would force the animals into even deeper waters as they attempt to travel to and from their priority habitat north and south of Taichung Port (something that very nearly 100% of the dolphins do). This would not only disrupt movements but also likely stop some individuals from even trying to cross these waters. The truth is that for successful conservation of Taiwanese white dolphin’s over the long term, there should be no port expansion. Rather, the northern shore of the Dadu River Estuary, which is the dolphins’ most important remaining habitat, needs to be restored. This habitat was once a sprawling, highly productive littoral zone but that zone is now occupied by the concrete and tetrapod walls of the massive Taichung power plant (see photos).

 

Taichung power plant and artificial shoreline as observed in 2012 (left) and 2013 (right). Photos: John Y. Wang / CetAsia Research Group

According to Wang, “Even without any new habitat-damaging or habitat-destroying development, the Taiwanese white dolphin’s survival is precarious. Any addition to existing stressors (big or small) will only speed up the Taiwanese white dolphin’s demise.”

 

The outlook for the Taiwanese white dolphin is therefore increasingly bleak, and reminiscent of those we faced with the now-extinct Yangtze River dolphin (baiji) in China and are facing with the very nearly extinct vaquita in Mexico (see our most recent vaquita news here). The best available science forces us to conclude that:

  • Approval by the Taiwan government of any further expansion of the Taichung Outer Port Area will almost certainly have catastrophic impacts on Taiwanese white dolphins;
  • No ‘countermeasure’ can be taken to mitigate those impacts; and
  • Together with the other ongoing threats, especially gillnet entanglement, identified and described in numerous workshop reports and publications (most recently in the 2019 Recovery Plan produced by experts from Taiwan, the United States, and Canada, and delivered to the Ocean Conservation Administration in Taiwan), further land reclamation and industrial development in these dolphins’ core habitat will almost certainly result in another cetacean extinction.

 

It is also important to note in this present context that one of the main outcomes of the recent Convention on Biodiversity Conference of Parties (COP15) was a call for “maintaining, enhancing and restoring ecosystems, including halting species extinction and maintaining genetic diversity.”

An Open Letter from the Cetacean Specialist Group to the Taiwan Authorities and Others Engaged in Industrial Development in Taiwan was sent at the end of January 2023, highlighting concerns that expanding the Taichung Outer Port Area would almost certainly cause irreparable damage to the dolphin population.

 

Reference:

Araújo-Wang, C., Wang, J.Y., Draghici, A.M., Ross, P.S. and Bonner, S.J. 2022. New abundance and survival estimates for the critically endangered Taiwanese white dolphin indicate no signs of recovery. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 32(8):1341-1350. https://doi.org/10.1002/aqc.3831

 

More Information and other News Stories on the Taiwanese White Dolphin:

https://iucn-csg.org/csg-special-projects/eastern-taiwan-strait-humpback-dolphins/

Dead Taiwanese White Dolphin stranded in Tainan City

Critically Endangered Taiwanese white dolphin: International Collaboration for Recovery Plan

Initiative to save Taiwanese white dolphins from extinction

Update on Cetacean Red List Assessments Published in 2022

IUCN published two Red List updates in 2022 – 2022-1 in July and 2022-2 in December. The new cetacean assessments reflected several recent taxonomic changes (see Committee on Taxonomy). Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu), a newly recognised species, was assessed as DD (Brownell and Pitman 2022) and True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) was reassessed, in the light of revised taxonomy and new information on distribution, but remains listed as LC (Pitman et al. 2022). Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei), previously assessed as a CR subpopulation of Bryde’s whale (LC), is now assessed as a CR species (Rosel et al. 2022). The Indus River (Platanista minor) and Ganges River (Platanista gangetica) dolphins, both previously assessed as EN subspecies of the South Asian River dolphin (EN), were assessed as EN species in 2022 (Kelkar et al. 2022, Braulik et al. 2022). Finally, the text of the published vaquita assessment was updated in 2022 to reflect the changing situation and new information for that CR species.

 

In addition to the new species assessments above, new assessments for the following Mediterranean cetacean subpopulations were published: Mediterranean subpopulation of Risso’s dolphin (EN), Gulf of Corinth subpopulation of striped dolphins (EN), Mediterranean subpopulation of striped dolphins (LC), and the Inner Mediterranean subpopulation of common dolphins (EN).

 

Summary of the Red List Status of Cetaceans

The Red List status and documentation for 93 cetacean species as well as 10 subspecies and 31 subpopulations can be found on the IUCN Red List website (redlist.org). Of the 93 species, 26% are assigned to a threatened category (i.e. CR, EN, VU), just over half (52%) are Least Concern, and 11% are considered DD (Table 1). It should also be emphasized that there is strong interest in completing additional assessments of subpopulations that are known or thought to be at higher risk than the species as a whole (e.g. killer whales, belugas and narwhals, dusky dolphins, Amazon River dolphins).

 

Table 1. Summary information on Red List status as of December 2022.

Category Species Subspecies Subpopulations Total
Critically Endangered 5 4 15 24
Endangered 12 2 11 25
Vulnerable 7 4 2 13
Near Threatened 10 0 1 11
Least Concern 49 0 2 51
Data Deficient 10 0 0 10
Total 93 10 31 134

 

References

Braulik, G.T., Khan, U., Malik, M. & Aisha, H. 2022. Platanista minor. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T41757A50383490. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2022-1.RLTS.T41757A50383490.en. Accessed on 21 December 2022.

Brownell Jr., R.L. & Pitman, R.L. 2022. Mesoplodon eueu. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T215824818A215824841. Accessed on 21 December 2022.

Kelkar, N., Smith, B.D., Alom, M.Z., Dey, S., Paudel, S. & Braulik, G.T. 2022. Platanista gangetica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T41756A50383346. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2022-1.RLTS.T41756A50383346.en. Accessed on 21 December 2022.

Pitman, R.L., Brownell Jr., R.L. & Cholewiak, D. 2022. Mesoplodon mirus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T13250A210428691. Accessed on 21 December 2022.

Rosel, P., Corkeron, P. & Soldevilla, M. 2022. Balaenoptera ricei. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T215823373A208496244. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2022-1.RLTS.T215823373A208496244.en. Accessed on 21 December 2022.

 

Vaquita Update II: Illegal fishing continues with impunity in the area where the last vaquitas survive

By Barb Taylor and Jay Barlow

 

On a visit to San Felipe, Mexico on 27-28 November, we witnessed illegal fishing-related activity with no sign of enforcement and no attempt by fishers to conceal their activities from authorities. In the area we observed, the transport and use of gillnets is banned. Pursuant to Mexican law, the launching of fishing vessels is permitted only from the marina in San Felipe, all small fishing vessels (called pangas) must have clearly visible identification numbers, and engine power is limited to 115 hp. Identification numbers are required for all boats for the Harbor Master to regulate navigation. Permits must be checked on departure and arrival. Nevertheless, in one hour just after dawn on the 27th, 21 pangas with gillnets were launched from downtown San Felipe, which is not a legal launching site. Four pangas were seen to be taken out of the water, presumably after fishing at night, which is also illegal. Only four of the pangas carrying gillnets had identification numbers. A few had engines marked as 115 hp, but one (see photo) had a 200 hp engine with the marking visible and many had similar-sized engines with all markings removed. No authorities were present to check permits or gear types. A video of this activity can be seen here. A large Navy patrol ship could be seen anchored several miles away.

Long queue at illegal launch site in downtown San Felipe, Mexico

 

Dawn in San Felipe showing pelicans and gulls feeding on the previous day’s bycatch being cleaned from gillnets

 

At dawn on 28 November, we observed the legal launching point in the marina next to the Mexican Navy facility for an hour. Only 2 gillnet vessels launched from this point. However, more than 30 vessels equipped with diving gear for mollusks launched. No fisheries or naval authorities were present to check vessel permits. Smaller Navy enforcement vessels were seen at a nearby dock but none were observed to launch. Most trucks and trailers used for the diving operations were in good condition and nearly all pangas had identification numbers.

 

Typical ‘white’ panga with no identification number. Gillnets are piled in front of 4 floats with flags used to visually track the nets as they ‘soak’ to catch shrimp.

Properly numbered panga at the legal marina launching site next to the Navy facility, with illegal gillnets visible onboard. Few pelicans and gulls were seen at this site where only a few gillnetters were cleaning their nets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From land, it was not possible to determine whether pangas, equipped for either diving or gillnetting, were fishing within the Zero Tolerance Area (where no fishing of any kind is permitted). However, many pangas were fishing very close to San Felipe within viewing distance from shore where vaquitas have been observed in recent years and within the gillnet exclusion zone, which includes all waters that vaquitas occupied historically. Small lights, like those used on pangas, were visible after dark along the horizon during a time period when fishing is banned.

 

Panga with gillnets and an illegal 200 hp engine

More than half of the pangas that we observed were equipped for diving, which is not a threat to vaquitas. This ‘good’ news is offset by the fact that we saw no evidence of alternative (‘vaquita-safe’) gear being used to fish for shrimp and there was no sign that anyone was checking permits or taking any kind of enforcement action. To date, the 2022 shrimp season has been exceptionally windy such that fishers have experienced fewer good days for fishing than usual. The fine weather on 26 and 27 November together with sufficient tidal currents to make shrimp fishing feasible would be expected to result in high fishing effort. The lack of enforcement emboldens fishers to continue fishing illegally and makes clear to those who wish to fish legally that they would not be rewarded for doing so. Directions from CITES to immediately enforce the gillnet ban laws have been ignored to date. The season when totoaba spawn and are fished with illegal gillnets in vaquita habitat is about to begin.