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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Update on Mekong and Ayeyarwady Irrawaddy dolphin conservation

With support of the CSG, further steps were taken recently toward the conservation of two of Asia’s three riverine populations of Irrawaddy dolphins Orcaella brevirostris: in the Mekong of Cambodia and Laos and in the Ayeyarwady of Myanmar.

Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins

The critically endangered Mekong River population has been the subject of ongoing global interest and concern, and an ad hoc team of international conservation scientists has been providing advice to local conservationists in the Cambodian Fisheries Administration and WWF-Cambodia since 2009 (see reports from 2009 and this background summary). Since 2012 and the landmark Kratie Declaration on the Conservation of the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins, major changes have occurred in the governance and management of dolphin conservation efforts within both the Cambodia government and WWF-Cambodia. In view of those changes, local partners decided to organize a workshop in Phnom Penh to assess progress on implementation of the recommendations from the Kratie Declaration and to update Cambodia’s river dolphin conservation strategy. Randall Reeves co-chaired the event which was well attended by local government and civil society representatives. CSG members Bob Brownell, Andy Read, Brian Smith, Randy Wells and Gerry Ryan as well as Frances Gulland of the SSC Wildlife Health SG, Helene Marsh of the SSC Sirenia SG and current president of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, and Peter Thomas of the US Marine Mammal Commission also participated in the workshop.

The workshop affirmed that significant progress had been made since the Kratie Declaration, notably in the reinforcement of patrolling activities by river guards and the refinement of protocols to investigate mortality. Nonetheless, the group concluded that entanglement in gillnets remains the most critical and immediate threat to the survival of dolphins in the Mekong and that concerted efforts are needed to address this issue even more vigorously. Also, other threats have emerged, most importantly the notification by Laos of its intention to proceed with construction of a hydropower dam at Don Sahong near the Cambodia border, starting later this year. Proposals for hydropower dams cover almost the entire current range of the Mekong dolphins. Construction of the Don Sahong dam as well as the Xayaburi dam farther upstream in a major tributary of the Mekong in Laos would set a poor precedent as the proliferation of dams in the Mekong would almost certainly spell the end for dolphins in this river system. (WWF is campaigning to prevent construction of the Don Sahong dam). The workshop made a series of recommendations related to strengthened research on demography and mortality of the dolphin population as well as more rigorous analyses of the booming dolphin-watching tourism industry. The full report of the workshop is available here.

Ayeyarwady River dolphins

Given the assembled expertise on river dolphin conservation, the conveners took advantage of the opportunity to hold a separate discussion on the deteriorating situation of the critically endangered dolphin population in the Ayeyarwady River (click here for report). Irrawaddy dolphins in both the Mekong and Ayeyarwady share similar conservation challenges. These include low population size, a declining range, suspected high mortality from gill-net entanglement, illegal electro-fishing, and plans for constructing hydroelectric dams in the mainstem and major tributaries. Compared to the Mekong, much less is known about demography and mortality of dolphins in the Ayeyarwady. As a consequence, a great deal of the discussion focused on identifying information gaps and appropriate strategies for filling those gaps. The long-standing co-operative fishing relationship between dolphins and cast-net fishermen in the Ayeyarwady appears to have broken down due to diminished catches and the disturbance caused by electro-fishing. This illegal fishing technique is practised extensively in the Ayeyarwady but is particularly difficult to stop because it is done surreptitiously by armed gangs at night.

In addition to highlighting the potential disappearance of the human-dolphin cooperative fishery and the ecological problems caused by electro-fishing, the group made recommendations and expressed concern about topics including the importance of conducting rigorous surveys; the apparent resurgence of gold-mining in the river mainstem; the need to understand  movement patterns with respect to population fragmentation; the value of establishing a  mortality monitoring network and a site-specific necropsy protocol that includes an examination for external signs of contact with fishing gear; and the importance of conducting a rigorous assessment of the potential impacts of planned dams. Finally, the group recognized that the participation of international experts has been extremely useful in helping to establish conservation measures and research initiatives in the Mekong River. They therefore suggested that a similar approach would be useful in Myanmar.

After the workshop, Helene Marsh travelled to Yangon to meet with Aung Myo Chit, a local conservationist in Myanmar who is in the process of establishing a foundation for the protection of Irrawaddy dolphins, and staff from the Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar Program and the Myanmar Department of Fisheries. Together with these partners, Marsh developed a proposal to convene the First International Workshop on the Management and Research Priorities for the Ayeyarwady Dolphin, tentatively planned for late 2014 or early 2015.

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There are four (maybe more) separate species of Sousa

By Peter Corkeron (20th April 2014)

Dolphins in the genus Sousa, the humpback dolphins, occur in coastal waters of West Africa, around the Indian Ocean, and in SE Asia and Australia. A recent scientific paper starts to clarify the number of species in the genus. Martin Mendez and Howard Rosenbaum from the Wildlife Conservation Society and American Museum of Natural History pulled together a large team of collaborators from across the taxon’s range. Together, they amassed 235 genetic and 180 morphological samples for new analyses. Previous genetic work, particularly that led by Cèline Frère, suggested that Sousa in Australian waters are distinct from those elsewhere. Earlier morphometric work by Tom Jefferson and Koen Van Waerebeek had not found differences among samples across the Indo-Pacific, suggesting caution when dividing the “Indo-Pacific” clade of Sousa into separate taxa. Mendez and coauthors’ new paper reanalyzed the morphometric data and detected differences, supporting the concept of at least four separate species: S. teuszii in West Africa, S. plumbea in the central and western Indian Ocean, S chinensis in the eastern Indian and western Pacific oceans, and an as yet unnamed Australian species.

A Western Indian Ocean Humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) surfaces near Fumba, west Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo: Gill Braulik

 There’s further evidence suggesting two distinct groups (south-east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula) in the western portions of the range of S. plumbea, and the status of dolphins between south-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent probably won’t be resolved without more sampling. The “Australian” species (which lacks the dorsal “hump” characteristic of S. plumbea and S. teuszii) probably also occurs around the island of New Guinea although establishing the limits of its range will require further sampling in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Mendez’s previous work demonstrating links between oceanography and genetic distinctiveness in Sousa suggests ways forward.

 What does this mean for Sousa conservation? S. chinensis, S. plumbea and the Australian species tend to occur in small, relatively isolated populations. Sousa generally tend to live close to shore in areas that are either already heavily affected by human activities or that are becoming more so.  Their restricted coastal distribution, susceptibility to bycatch, and proximity to various human activities make them extremely vulnerable, and all Sousa populations are of conservation concern.

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Blue whales protected in the largest Marine Park in continental Chile

By Francisco Viddi and Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete

The Chilean government has recently approved the declaration of the Tic Toc Marine Park, located on Chile’s southern coast, off the Northern Patagonian Fjords.  This marine park, in the waters of Corcovado Gulf, will protect of one of the most pristine marine ecosystems in the southern hemisphere.  With an area of 90,000 ha, Tic-Toc will be the largest marine protected area in continental Chile.

Blue Whale surfacing in the new Tic Toc marine park in Chile. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Huck-Gaete

Research conducted over the last ten years has demonstrated the importance of this area: it hosts one of the largest populations of blue whales in the southern hemisphere, is home to the endemic Chilean dolphin, and is a nesting ground for many bird species including a newly described species of petrel.  Other cetaceans that are fairly common in the area and will also benefit from the additional protection the park provides include humpback, sei, minke and killer whales, Peale´s, dusky and bottlenose dolphins, and Burmeister´s porpoises. Many fish species of commercial importance breed within the park and coldwater corals are present.

Beautiful scenery in the new Tic Toc marine park in Chile. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Huck-Gaete

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Announcement of the Creation of the Marine Mammal Protected Area Task Force

by Erich Hoyt and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

25 October 2013

The creation of the IUCN Joint SSC/WCPA Marine Mammal Protected Area Task Force (MMPATF) was formally announced on 24 October 2013 by Dan Laffoley, World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara on behalf of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), and Naomi McIntosh, International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (ICMMPA). The MMPATF objectives and further activities were described by the Task Force co-chairs, Erich Hoyt and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara.

Following two global conferences (Hawaii, 2009; and Martinique, 2011) hosted by the ICMMPA, the Task Force was developed through the WCPA, the SSC and the ICMMPA to give a stronger voice to marine mammal needs within IUCN and to serve the larger marine mammal protected area community of practice.

Objectives of the new Task Force include:
a) facilitating mechanisms by which this community of practice can collaborate, share information and experience, access and disseminate knowledge and tools for establishing, monitoring, and managing marine mammal protected areas (MMPA) and promote effective spatial solutions and best practices for marine mammal conservation;
b) bolstering capacity within the MMPA community by exposing it to state-of-the-art tools from the wider MPA and place-based conservation world;
c) enabling the implementation of global MPA targets and agreements; and
d) enhancing opportunities for cooperation, communication, exposure of related products and expertise to a far wider audience.

Task Force products and activities will likely include: publications, guidelines, best-practice guidance (e.g., in the Protected Planet series); consolidation and coordination of the global community of practice; outreach (conference presentations, workshops, website, social networks); application of new technologies (e.g., Google tools); provision of information on activities to WCPA Marine and to SSC, and for protected area news in and outside of IUCN, as appropriate, on a regular basis; supporting pursuance of WCPA, SSC and IUCN goals where appropriate; and supporting relevant resolution drafting and World Park Congress planning and participation.

The Task Force’s first initiative consists in the development of Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), a working term we have devised to describe discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. IMMAs can be seen as a potential ‘marine mammal layer’ which represent a pre-selection for consideration by governments, conservation groups, and the general public of areas that deserve consideration for space-based protection. In addition, by linking IMMAs to the larger world of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (CBD EBSAs), IUCN Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), and Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) work, we hope to accelerate the process of habitat protection for marine mammals and the ecosystems that support them. The networking of IMMAs could represent a cost-effective approach to conservation. They can help supply the basis for future MPAs, MPA networks, marine spatial planning and support marine biodiversity conservation in general through marine mammal flagship, umbrella and indicator properties.

In order to identify and propose IMMAs, a set of criteria must be developed that are simple and flexible to allow use in different countries and geographic areas. Criteria must be science-based and applicable to all main marine mammal taxa, and be able to account for the major ecological and biological differences that exist among marine mammals. To achieve this goal, the MMPATF organised on 22 October 2013 in Marseille a workshop dedicated to the selection of IMMA criteria, with the participation of specialists familiar with the main marine mammal taxa, as well as those working in the CBD EBSA and IUCN KBA arenas, and those who have worked on devising the original criteria descriptions for these approaches. This workshopfunded by the Animal Welfare Institute and The Pacific Life Foundation, with the help of The Ocean Foundation and Whale and Dolphin Conservation confirmed the importance of establishing IMMAs specifically and KBAs generally as lists of potential sites for the designation of EBSAs in the marine environment as endorsed by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. A working group, set up from this workshop, will now work to finalize the criteria and determine next steps for its testing and implementation.

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Concern over use of dolphins for bait in shark fisheries

The release last week of a newspaper article and accompanying video footage of dolphins in Peru being harpooned by fishermen and the flesh used as bait in the shark fishery has received considerable international attention<http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2465575/Dolphins-killed-bait-catch-endangered-sharks-Peru.html>.

The CSG has evidence that in addition to Peru, dolphins are, or have been, used as shark bait in a variety of other countries and regions, including East Africa and South America, and it is probable that the killing of dolphins, as a perceived free source of bait, is on the increase, driven by the lucrative shark fin trade.

At present very little information is available on the prevalence of this activity, but as many cetacean populations are small, with restricted distributions, and are already under pressure from other human activities, these directed takes are very likely to be unsustainable.  It is important that efforts are made to investigate the Peru story further, and to better understand and quantify this threat to dolphins in Peru and elsewhere.

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