Dead Taiwanese White Dolphin stranded in Tainan City

By Megan Kuo and Amy Tian of Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan


Photograph of Joker with his distinctive lip gash as well as an unpigmented (white) healed line scar on the front edge of the flipper. Photograph by: John Y. Wang / CetAsia Research Group

On 21 January 2022, the Taiwan Ocean Conservation Administration (OCA) was informed by the public of a dead stranded dolphin at Anping Fishing Port, Tainan City. Marine biology experts and inspectors were on the scene and sent the carcass to the Annan campus of National Cheng Kung University for necropsy. The animal was determined to be dolphin number OCA038 in the OCA’s White Dolphin Database. Necropsy revealed a juvenile male Taiwanese White Dolphin with fresh scars, and developmental abnormalities due to injuries caused by past gillnet entanglement.


This dolphin was later identified by experts in the CetAsia Research Group as an approximately 12-year-old male named ‘Joker’ because of a distinctive lip-to-lip scar across his beak from a previous gillnet entanglement. While his cause of death is uncertain, gillnet entanglement is a common issue among Taiwanese White Dolphins. A study by the CetAsia Research Group in 2017 found that about 58% of Taiwanese White Dolphins had suffered major human-induced injuries, mainly from gillnets. Joker’s mother, known as Cupcake, was well-known due to the severe mutilation of her body caused by fishing gear entanglement in 2012. Her most recent calf, born in 2015-16 was also observed in 2017 with a line wrapped around its torso.


Photographs of Joker with his mother, Cupcake, taken in 2011 (prior to Cupcake’s entanglement) and 2012 (lines cutting into Cupcake’s dorsal fin and back can be seen). Photographs by: John Y. Wang / CetAsia Research Group


The Taiwanese White Dolphin Recovery Plan in 2019 clearly states that a ban on gill and trammel nets in the entire habitat of the dolphins is urgently needed. The plan proposes a solution characterized as a “win-win-win” through a buy-out program, brokered between the government and wind-farm developers, meant to appease competing interests. Gillnet fishers would be compensated and provided with assistance in switching to alternative fishing methods.


The resultant severe mutilation of Cupcake due to lines cutting through her dorsal fin and back. Photograph by: John Y. Wang / CetAsia Research Group

The Taiwanese White Dolphin (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis) is a subspecies that is endemic to Taiwan and Red-Listed as Critically Endangered. A recent study showed the total population to be declining and numbering fewer than 65. These dolphins only inhabit a narrow strip of shallow waters along Taiwan’s heavily developed west coast, where fisheries are considered the greatest threat. Joker’s demise generates urgency for coordinated efforts among relevant stakeholders to prevent the extinction of Taiwan’s sole endemic cetacean.


Wang, J. Y., & Araújo-Wang, C. (2017). Severe mutilation of a Critically Endangered Taiwanese humpback dolphin Sousa chinensis taiwanensis by fishing gear. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms123(3), 257-262.
Wang, J. Y., Riehl, K. N., Yang, S. C., & Araújo-Wang, C. (2017). Unsustainable human-induced injuries to the Critically Endangered Taiwanese humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis). Marine Pollution Bulletin116(1-2), 167-174.

Vaquitas seen in autumn 2021 survey


From October 17 through November 3, 2021, a vaquita research effort was privately funded through the Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar and a number of private donors. The survey focused on the last stronghold of vaquitas, the Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) declared in Mexico’s Federal Register of September 24, 2020 as an area defined as follows: Fishing activities of any kind, with any type of vessel, including sport fishing, are permanently and totally prohibited within the “Zero Tolerance Area”. No type of vessel will be allowed to transit or navigate in this area, unless the vessel is authorized to transit, in writing, by the competent authority.


Both vaquitas and large amounts of illegal gillnetting were observed during the survey. The 2021 survey report (available here) documents the study in 2021 that was designed to be as close as possible to the research last conducted in 2019. In the intervening 2 years, net removal coverage was limited in 2020 (see news reports on this website 1, 2, 3) and after January 1, 2021 only the Mexican Navy carried out actions for the removal of nets with no participation by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Museo de la Ballena because strong civil unrest had resulted in the Navy telling the net-removal ships to leave the area. In the absence of a strong programme to support and incentivize the deployment of alternative fishing gear, fishing communities have continued using gillnets for shrimp and finfish including totoaba.


As was the case in 2019, the survey was hindered by the large number of gillnets and pangas, which was documented from the Museo de la Ballena’s ship the Narval in the 2019 Report with 87 and in the 2021 Report with 117 pangas within the ZTA. As specified in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Government of Mexico, details on illegal gillnetting were recorded multiple times each survey day and the data were turned over to the Government of Mexico. One apparent enforcement action was witnessed during the survey.


As a consequence of unfavorable weather conditions, no photographs of sufficient quality to identify individual vaquitas were obtained, which made estimation of the number of vaquitas within the ZTA using mark-recapture methods impossible. Instead, a method called Expert Elicitation was used as was done in 2019. The 2019 report concluded that the most likely number seen in the ZTA was about 11 individuals including 3 calves (2019 Report here). The 2021 report found that the most likely number seen in the ZTA was about 7 or 8 individuals including 1 or 2 calves (2021 Final Report here). Given the concentration of fishing within the vaquita’s last 12 x 24km stronghold and the lack of any effort to deter gillnetting within the ZTA over the two-year period, the survival of these individuals is nothing short of remarkable.


Letter sent from IUCN SSC regarding strengthening protection measures for the vaquita


On 14th August 2021, the Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Jon Paul Rodríguez sent a letter to members of the Government of Mexico, the Government of the US, Government of Canada, the Trilateral Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Government of China, European Union, CITES Secretariat, World Heritage Center and the Global Environment Facility requesting immediate actions from governments, international bodies and potential donors to help to save the vaquita.


The letter explained that the most urgent is the need for technical, financial and legal support to the Mexican government and civil society to ensure effective implementation of conservation actions: scientific vaquita monitoring, equipping and training local fisherfolk to use legally mandated gear, continual removal of illegal gillnets from vaquita habitat, and training and increased resources for law enforcement. It also urged the Grupo Intergubernamental sobre la Sustentabilidad en el Alto Golfo de California to modify the so‐called “Trigger Factors” agreement published 9 July 2021, which is a complex fisheries management program that will be almost impossible to implement and enforce and which undermines the legal commitment to Zero Tolerance in the very small (280 km2) area where the last few vaquitas remain.


The letter can be read in full here.