Potential new breeding area revealed for critically endangered Baltic Sea harbour porpoises

The critically endangered vaquita (see news item below) is not the only cetacean seriously threatened by gillnet entanglement. The small subpopulation of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in the Baltic Sea has been drastically reduced, initially by large historical commercial catches in the Danish Straits and more recently by incidental mortality in fishing nets, primarily set and drifting gillnets. Other threats probably exist but are not well understood. Baltic Sea harbour porpoises are red-listed as Critically Endangered (click to see assessment).

The need for improved methods of collecting data on Baltic Sea porpoise numbers and range, and how these change over time, led to initiation of the Static Acoustic Monitoring of the Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise (SAMBAH) project. which involved all EU countries bordering the Baltic Sea.  The overall objectives of the project were to develop and implement a best practice methodology and provide data for reliably assessing porpoise distribution and habitat.

Porpoise echolocation signals were recorded by acoustic data loggers called C-PODs deployed at 304 locations in waters 5-80 m deep throughout the Baltic Sea, making it one of the largest projects of its kind in the world – a huge collaborative effort. The project is now complete and the results have been released.

The number of harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea was estimated as 447 (95% confidence interval 90–997). Seasonal distribution maps (see below) show a clear spatial separation of populations in the Baltic Proper and in the Western Baltic during May-December when the porpoises mate, give birth and nurse their calves. Spatial modelling of the acoustic data revealed a major breeding area of the Baltic Proper population around the Midsjö banks southeast of Öland, where the presence of porpoises had been virtually unknown previously.

Image Caption: Dots indicate positions of acoustic data loggers (C-PODs) that recorded harbour porpoise echolocation signals in January-April, and May–December 2011 and 2012, combined. The line indicates the likely seasonal division between the population in the Baltic Proper and porpoises in waters to the west.

The combination of the new (albeit very imprecise) population estimate and the new information on porpoise distribution in space and time within the Baltic is expected to enable dedicated conservation action in areas where it is most needed. Also, the methodologies developed by the project offer new possibilities for assessing porpoise densities elsewhere using passive acoustics.

 


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New evidence that Mexican authorities are not adequately enforcing fishing regulations to protect vaquitas

Mexico’s endemic Gulf of California porpoise, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), is the most endangered marine mammal species in the world.

A vaquita that died in a gillnet – note the markings left by the net on the animals face.

In that context, the CSG chairman has just received a set of photographs taken on 5 December 2014 over the Vaquita Refuge (see polygonal area in map below). In total, 90 pangas (gillnet fishing boats) were photographed inside the Refuge. Seventeen individual gillnetting “activities” are visible on the aerial imagery. Of these, three are pangas deploying nets, ten are pangas recovering nets, and four are nets “soaking,” unattached to a vessel. Although some pangas appeared to be respecting the Refuge and were observed to the south and east of the boundary, 90 were counted within the vaquita habitat that is supposed to be protected. This imagery and associated observations show that even within the Vaquita Refuge, gillnet fishing continues and the vaquita will continue to decline unless decisive action is taken immediately by Mexican authorities.

Google Earth image showing the location of fishing vessels and gear inside the Vaquita Refuge on December 5th, 2014. Red circles and white lines denote the reserve boundary.

To download the google earth image files shown above in .kmz format, click here.

Below is a selection of aerial photographs of individual fishing vessels and their gear (photos are from location 4, 25, 29, and 11 in the google earth image above)

To read more about the background and history of vaquita conservation click here
For recent vaquita news items showing the progression of conservation efforts see below:


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Bangladesh Declares a New Marine Protected Area For Dolphins, Whales, Sharks, and Sea Turtles

On 27 October, 2014, the Government of Bangladesh signed into law the country’s first Marine Protected Area, the ‘Swatch of No Ground’ (SoNG), designed to safeguard whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and other oceanic species.  The SoNG MPA spans 1,738 km2 including waters at the head of the submarine canyon from which it gets its name as well as coastal waters offshore of the world’s largest mangrove forest: the Sundarbans.

The Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project has worked with the Government of Bangladesh since 2004 to ensure the long-term protection of cetaceans through collaboration with local communities. During the course of this work, large numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins, finless porpoises, Pacific humpback dolphins, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, pan-tropical spotted dolphins, and spinner dolphins were observed, as well as what may prove to be a resident population of Bryde’s whales.

It is hoped that the creation of the SoNG MPA—which borders the territorial waters of India—will promote discussions on a trans-boundary protected area, as neighbouring waters likely contain similar species richness and the cetaceans on both sides of the border face the same threats such as entanglement in fishing gear and climate change.


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Satellite tagging southern right whales off Patagonia to help understand the reasons for recent die-offs

For the first time, scientists working in the waters of Patagonia are using satellite tags to track southern right whales from their breeding and calving grounds in the sheltered bays of Península Valdés, Argentina, to unknown feeding grounds in the western South Atlantic. It is hoped that this will provide clues to the cause of one of the largest die-offs of large whales ever recorded.

Southern right whales have rebounded from centuries of commercial whaling; populations have grown by as much as seven percent annually since 1970. Around one third of all southern hemisphere right whales alive today use the protected bays of Península Valdés as calving and nursing habitat between the months of June and December. However, at least 672 southern right whales have died at Península Valdés in the last ten years, the vast majority young calves. A number of explanations have been proposed: nutritional stress due to krill depletion, bacterial biotoxins in nursery waters, infectious disease and gull harassment. So far there has not been enough evidence to confirm that one or a combination of these factors is to blame. In the process of trying to understand the causes of the die-off, scientists have successfully attached satellite transmitters to five whales: three young, solitary males and two adult females with calves. In addition to transmitting geographical positions, two of the tags are equipped to monitor dive profiles and the temperature of the whales’ preferred habitat. All of this information will be used to help determine the location and condition of feeding grounds as well as the migratory routes taken to reach them.

It has been several weeks since the tags were attached and transmissions began. The three young males have left the nursery waters of Península Valdés. They have covered the wide ocean shelf, reached the shelf break over 200 miles offshore, and are now heading in a south-easterly direction, crossing deep, open-ocean water towards Antarctica. The adult females remain close to the Argentina coast, apparently waiting until their calves are strong enough to complete the long migration (see map of recorded movements).

The tags are expected to stay attached to the whales for a month or possibly two. It’s hoped that by the time they stop transmitting, all five of the whales will have safely reached their summer feeding grounds, and scientists will have more pieces of this complex puzzle.

The organisations involved in the tagging programme are the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Aqualie Institute (Brazil) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, USA) in collaboration with Fundacion Patagonia Natural (Argentina), Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (Argentina), Ocean Alliance (USA), and the University of California, Davis (USA).


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Cetaceans and western Indian Ocean tuna fisheries

Tropical tuna fisheries have expanded enormously in recent decades. Increased interactions with cetaceans are inevitable, and those in the western and central Indian Ocean are no exception. A new report from the region finds that there has been a widespread failure to monitor and manage cetacean interactions and bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna fisheries, and to develop and implement mitigation measures. The enormous, and still growing, gillnet capacity in the region should be of particular concern. The major gillnet fishing fleets are from the countries bordering the Arabian Sea: Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Iran, Oman and Yemen. It is estimated that at least 60,000 small cetaceans are taken annually by tuna gillnetters in this region. Illegal high-seas gillnetting is common. Purse seiners (mainly from France and Spain) regularly set on baleen whales (probably Bryde’s whale, Balaenoptera brydei); mortality rates are not known, but are probably in the 10s per year. Purse seiners report that tuna do not associate with dolphins in this region, but that is not true. Large yellowfin tuna do regularly associate with both pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) as well as with long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis). This discrepancy does not necessarily mean that purse seiners set on dolphins, but it does open it to question. There are also issues with the longline fisheries, where depredation (by both sharks and cetaceans) is a serious problem for some fishermen. There is a suggestion that some longline fishermen may be shooting cetaceans, especially false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens).

The full report is available at: http://www.ipnlf.org/


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Irrawaddy dolphins (Pesut) in Indonesia’s Mahakam River

At the chairman’s request, CSG member Danielle Kreb provided the following summary.

A Critically Endangered pesut surfaces in the Mahakam River, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo Credit: Danielle Kreb

One of the three Critically Endangered freshwater populations of Irrawaddy dolphins, Orcaella brevirostris, inhabits the Mahakam River, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Analysis of tissues samples from 8 individuals indicated that this population has two unique genetic haplotypes compared to the coastal Irrawaddy dolphins in Northeast Kalimantan (Malinau), Thailand and Philippines. All sightings of pesut (as the dolphins are called locally) in the main Mahakam River during surveys between 1997-2012 were in the area between Muara Kaman (about 180 km from the river mouth) and the village of Tering (about 420 km from the mouth). Based on interviews, the distribution area could extend outside this area at some times of the year, both downstream (up to 90 km from the mouth) and upstream, where however it would be limited by the rapids upstream of Long Bagun (600 km from the mouth).  Pesut have also been found in the tributaries in the middle Mahakam, i.e. Kedang Rantau, Kedang Kepala, Belayan, Kedang Pahu, Pela, Semayang and Melintang Lakes, and in-between fast-flowing streams at about 20 and 100 km upstream of the Ratah River, which empties into the Mahakam at least 500km from the sea.

Based on Petersen mark–recapture analysis, the total population of pesut was estimated at 89 in 2005 (Cl 70-128; CV=0,18), 90 (Cl 68-145; CV= 0,19) in 2007, 91 (Cl 76-116; CV=0,13) in 2010 and 92 (CL 73-131; CV=0,15) in 2012, indicating no marked increase or decrease over this period. A survey to obtain a new abundance estimate is planned for later this year.

Large coal barges ply the water of the Mahakam threatening the Irrawaddy dolphins. Photo Credit: Danielle Kreb

The mean number of detected dead dolphins per year between 1995-2013 is 4 (ca 4% of total population); total recorded deaths in 19 years: 79. Most deaths have been caused by gillnet entanglement (66% of 71 deaths with known cause) followed by vessel strike (10%).

Other threats include noise from high-speed boats and oceanic coal-carrier ships passing through core habitat, chemical pollution from coal-mining waste cleaning and large-scale mono-culture plantations (especially oil palm) and prey depletion as a result of unsustainable fishing (e.g. electro-fishing, poison and trawl). Displacement of dolphins from core areas has been caused by container barges moving through narrow tributaries, sedimentation of lake habitat and conversion of fish spawning areas into palm oil plantations. One example is the ‘Muara Pahu – Penyinggahan sub-districts area’ which had the highest density of dolphins before 2007 and was designated as a dolphin reserve in 2009. Dolphins have been observed less and less often by local residents and during four extensive surveys in 2010 and 2012, no dolphins were

Human habitation along the Mahakam River. Photo Credit: Danielle Kreb

encountered there or in areas upstream of Muara Pahu, except for one isolated group that has resided in the Ratah River for the last 14 years.

Currently, conservation activities focus on gaining local governmental and community support to protect important dolphin habitat through multi-stakeholder workshops and preparing a management plan with tasks allocated to relevant organizations in each area. A major goal is to mitigate (or preferably eliminate) unsustainable fishing techniques, e.g. by introducing more sustainable fishing techniques, law enforcement, restoring and maintaining fish spawning areas and reducing pollution (chemical waste and boat noise). On a positive note, the government in the one district where dolphins still occur in good numbers (Pela/ Semayang –Muara Kaman area) is seriously considering a proposal to protect a50,000 ha area. All potentially affected villages participated in design of the proposed protected area and a final decision by the government is expected in early December.


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Vaquita conservation update

As promised in the news item posted 2 August regarding availability of the vaquita recovery team’s (CIRVA) report, this is an update following the most recent (5th) meeting of the Advisory Commission to the Presidency of Mexico for Recovery of the Vaquita (‘presidential commission’) in Mexico City, 31 July – 1 August 2014. At this meeting, the alarming findings from the acoustic monitoring program intended to track trends in the vaquita population (18.5% annual decline) and a new estimate of current abundance (97 individuals) were presented by Barbara Taylor on behalf of CIRVA. Presentations by Mexican authorities indicated that illegal fishing has continued in the northern Gulf of California and that the transition from gillnets to ‘vaquita-safe’ light trawls in the shrimp fishery has gone much slower than required under Mexican law. Most importantly, the illegal fishery for totoaba, a giant croaker whose swim bladder is highly valued in China as a ‘health food’, has resurged over the last few years, driving the dramatic decline in vaquita numbers because of mortality in the large-mesh gillnets used to catch totoaba.

Scientists from Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries are currently reviewing CIRVA’s analyses of vaquita abundance and trend. The presidential commission will recommend a course of action to President Nieto when it meets again at the end of August. The shrimp fishery is scheduled to open in September, and it is urgent that the Mexican Government acts decisively and favourably on CIRVA’s recommendation to immediately eliminate and exclude gillnets from the full range of the vaquita. Other nations that consume fishery products from the northern Gulf of California also need to step up and help Mexico shut down the black market trade in totoaba swim bladders. Only by bold, swift actions can we expect to avert another extinction of a cetacean species following that of China’s freshwater dolphin, the baiji, less than a decade ago.


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The Vaquita: New report from CIRVA released…

The recently completed report of the international vaquita recovery team (CIRVA) is now available here in English, and in Spanish.

 The Mexican presidential commission on vaquita conservation is meeting on 31 July and 1 August to consider CIRVA’s findings, and an update news item will be posted here in the near future.


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Amazon dolphins as fish bait: Brazil introduces a moratorium on piracatinga fishing

After a decade of battles and warnings, the Brazil government has finally recognized the dire threat to Amazon river dolphin (boto) Inia geoffrensis populations posed by the ongoing illegal hunt to obtain fish bait. Both botos and caimans are hunted for bait to catch catfish Calophysus macropterus, known in  Brazil as piracatinga.  During International Biodiversity Day on 22 May  2014, the Minister of the Environment Izabella Teixeira, and the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Eduardo Benedito Lopes jointly announced  their intention to establish  a nation-wide 5-year moratorium  on the fishing and commercialization of piracatinga. However, the Ministry of Fisheries delayed implementation on the grounds that more information was necessary to protect the rights of the fishermen involved. The decision was formally published and officially recognized on 18 July 2014 (see http://www.in.gov.br/autenticidade.html under the code 10002014071800013) although the moratorium will not take effect until the first of January 2015, allowing another season of hunting and the likely deaths of thousands more botos.

The main points of the moratorium are that:

  • It is forbidden to catch, hold on board, transship, disembark, store, transport, process or sell piracatinga.
  • The Ministries of Fisheries and Environment will be responsible for conducting studies to find less environmentally damaging alternatives to the current piracatinga fishery.
  • The  Ministry of the Environment will evaluate the effects of the moratorium on populations of botos, tucuxis (Sotalia fluviatilis) and caimans.

The moratorium does not apply to scientific catches or those defined as being for subsistence (no more than 5kg of fish per day, to be consumed by the fisherman and his family).

A new campaign to prevent boto killing was launched on 20 July. Called Red Alert and run by AMPA, a Brazilian NGO, it will raise money on an online platform (HotSite) in Portuguese and English to help monitor the effectiveness of the moratorium and stop the killing of botos in the Brazilian Amazon (www.alertavermelho.org.br).

Though an indirect and imperfect means of reducing the vast number of botos killed for bait in several countries across the Amazon basin, the moratorium on the Piracatinga fishery in Brazil will be a major step forward if it is adequately enforced. Hopefully it will inspire or embarrass other nations involved in killing Amazon dolphins for bait, notably Colombia, to enact legislation to bring this obviously inhumane and illegal hunt to an end.

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Enforcement paying off for the Atlantic humpback dolphin of Western Africa

Like many threatened species, the Vulnerable Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii) is under pressure from anthropogenic activities. Industrial and commercial scale fishing forces locally-based artisanal fishers to within 200 metres of the beach – using their nets in critical habitat for this poorly understood marine mammal. In a recent field report to SOS Save our Species, who funded the work, Tim Collins from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and IUCN CSG Member, reports on the impact of routine and frequent surveillance patrols in the waters of Conkouati-Douli National Park (CDNP), in the Republic of Congo – one of two project sites- to deter and intercept the trawlers that are deemed the root cause of the problem.

Humpback dolphins near the border of Gabon and Congo. They are known to routinely traverse this frontier. Photo Credit: Tim Collins

According to project director, Tim Collins, patrols have intercepted 15 trawlers (both metal hulled and wooden vessels) fishing illegally in park waters since December 2013. He explains that with a limited number of eco-guards on a single patrol boat, it is difficult to board every illegal vessel in the area, and typically some flee during intercepts. More recently, park waters have become empty of trawlers during the day, but vessels have started to come in after dark, usually around 8-9pm, leaving again by 5-6am, while Tim and colleagues evaluate how to adapt to this new pattern of activity. One option being discussed is to head out late in the day, heading into deeper water under cover of darkness, anchoring at sea. Trawlers fishing illegally would be intercepted at first light when they are heading back out to sea, explains Tim, although this is not without risk, he adds!

A juvenile humpback dolphin killed by a coastal, artisanal gillnet. Photo Credit: Tim Collins

Commenting on intercepted fishing boats, Tim explains these are generally registered locally with crews comprising a mix of Congolese and Chinese expatriates. In each case, skippers and vessels’ paperwork were taken into custody and brought to land for prosecution, and in most cases, the vessels themselves were escorted to the anchorage near coastal villages to facilitate processing of fines and confiscation of gear. In addition some larger West African pirogues fishing with long filets dormant – bottom set gill nets often over 2.5km long – with Congolese, Beninese, Ghanaian and Senegalese crews, have also been found in the park. All of these have been made to recover their nets and advised on where park limits lay. These boats are treated more leniently although are always provided with a warning.

Crucially, funds collected from the fines have been reinvested in strengthening enforcement in the national park with a part set aside for funding local fisheries cooperatives. This has been incredibly important for the project and fishers alike according to Tim. “We promised fishers that we would take action and in return they would honour an agreement to free the inshore strip – dolphin habitat. Being able to complete missions and return some of the financial benefits is critical and is helping to generate local support and buy-in”. This is extremely hard to do in a place where most people live from meal to meal and have very little room to make personal sacrifices, or risk loss such as moving their nets back into a risky area.

While part of the solution involves removing the trawler threat, the project’s sustainable impact comes from improving stakeholder management of local fisheries, in conjunction with the creation of local fishing cooperatives to improve management of artisanal fisheries. The positive results of the marine patrols, along with the efficient and clear reinvestment of fine funds into park management and the creation of local fishing cooperatives, attest not only to the success of the conservation initiative but also to the interest of both national authorities and local communities to enforce regulations and improve the conservation prospects of coastal dolphins and other species within CNDP. For more information about this project’s work in Mayumba National Park (Gabon) and Conkouati-Douli National Park (Republic of Congo) please visit the project page here.

News article is reproduced from SOS Save Our Species: the original article is at this link

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