Workshop on Important Marine Mammal Areas in the South Pacific

The IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force invited 23 marine mammal researchers and other experts from 14 Pacific countries to Apia, Samoa, for the second in a series of regional Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) workshops, 27-31 March 2017. This followed the first IMMA workshop in the Mediterranean in October 2016 sponsored by the MAVA Foundation.

The South Pacific IMMA workshop, sponsored as part of the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative through the German government’s International Climate Initiative (GOBI-IKI), recommended a preliminary total of 29 candidate IMMAs (cIMMAs) and 16 areas of interest (AoI). These will now go to an independent review panel.

The Samoa workshop was hosted and facilitated by the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). The initial results were announced by the Task Force members attending the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference in Tonga, 4-6 April. This event, as well as the IMMA workshop, formed part of the “Year of the Whale” celebrations in the South Pacific organized by SPREP and the countries of the South Pacific.

The region covered by this latest IMMA workshop was vast—from the Hawaiian archipelago in the northern hemisphere to the network of island states including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, among others. Various cIMMAs were mapped for humpback whales, sperm whales, spinner dolphins, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, Cuvier’s beaked whales and rough-toothed dolphins, as well as dugongs.

For more information, go to https://www.marinemammalhabitat.org/second-imma-workshop-held-samoa-helps-celebrate-year-whale-south-pacific/

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Announcement of the Second Indian Ocean Cetacean Symposium

The Second Indian Ocean Cetacean Symposium will be held by the Marine Research Centre (www.mrc.gov.mv) in the Maldives in 2019.  This is to follow on from the first Indian Ocean Cetacean Symposium that was held almost a decade ago, in July 2009, (see report here), and coincides with the 40th anniversary of the declaration of the International Whaling Commission’s Indian Ocean Sanctuary. The meeting will offer an opportunity for active cetacean researchers from across the Indian Ocean region to meet, to present findings, and to plan collaborative research activities. It will also bring together representatives of international organisations concerned with cetacean research and conservation.
Dates and venue are now being finalized, but will likely be for three days in May-June 2019. If you would like to register to receive further information please contact: Ms Mariyam Nazeefa, mnazeefa@mrc.gov.mv
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New Infographic from Arabian Sea Whale Network

After months of planning, the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) has finalized an infographic designed to raise awareness of the unique nature of Arabian Sea humpback whales and the urgent conservation challenges they face.  The infographic is intended for dissemination to a wide range of stakeholders, including government agencies responsible for conservation management, fisheries managers, port authorities and other industries that impact the marine environment.  Some ASWN members are also distributing electronic and printed versions to schools and coastal communities, and are translating the infographic into Arabic, Farsi, and Hindi in order to reach a wider target audience.  It is hoped that this awareness-raising tool will encourage stakeholders to engage and invest in the conservation efforts required to conserve this population and enable its recovery.

Arabian Sea Whale Network Infographic

ASWN is also working on the development of a regional online data platform that will allow members to archive cetacean sightings and strandings data in a common format to facilitate Arabian Sea-wide comparisons and analyses. ASWN is working with the developers of Flukebook, an open-source cetacean photo-identification and data archiving platform. As well as archiving data from directed cetacean research, the new regional data platform will facilitate the collection of third-party and opportunistic whale sightings data, such as the wave of reports made by fishermen from Pakistan late in 2016.  In countries where dedicated cetacean surveys have not yet been organized due to lack of funding or security concerns, these third-party reports can provide extremely valuable insight into whale distribution and threats.

For more information, please contact Gianna Minton (gianna.minton@gmail.com), Tim Collins (tcollins@wcs.org) or Marina Antonopoulou (mantonopoulou@ewswwf.ae)  Click here to download a high resolution PDF (75 MB) of  the  infographic.

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Progress protecting Mekong River dolphins undermined by proposed dams

Somany Phay, Frances Gulland, and H.E. Srun Limsong, Deputy Director General of the Fisheries Administration, Royal Government of Cambodia. Photo Credit: Peter Thomas

In January 2017 an international workshop on the Critically Endangered freshwater population of dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) in the Mekong River was held in Kratie, Cambodia [click here to read report]. This was the fourth such workshop convened by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – Cambodia and the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, all of them organized and conducted in collaboration with the CSG and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission [click here for more details].

At this workshop the external advisory group concluded that significant progress had been made on implementing most of the recommendations from the 2014 workshop, thanks to the commitment of the WWF-Cambodia team, the Fisheries Administration, the River Guards and the local community. The River Guards have worked hard to confiscate gillnets in the core dolphin zones and the consequent reduction in entanglement risk may have been a significant factor contributing to the recent increase in calf survival. The River Guards nevertheless continue to face a number of obstacles and gillnetting remains a serious threat.

River guards burning confiscated gillnets. Photo credit: Peter Thomas

Unfortunately, the threat of hydropower development, addressed in detail at the 2014 workshop, is now a reality for this population. Since the construction of the Don Sahong dam near the Laos/Cambodia border began in 2014, a local subpopulation of dolphins has declined from five to only three individual dolphins and there is now virtually no hope for its persistence. Progress on slowing the decline of the Mekong dolphin population, which currently numbers only about 80 individuals, could

be completely nullified by construction of the proposed Sambor and Stung Treng hydropower dams. If built, these dams will eliminate or transform most of the dolphins’ remaining riverine habitat. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed recently between the Cambodia government and a private company to carry out feasibility studies on the two new dams.

Construction of the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in Laos. Photo Credit: Peter Thomas

Other populations of Irrawaddy dolphins were also discussed, including the Critically Endangered Mahakam (Indonesia) and Ayeyarwady (Myanmar) freshwater ones as well as those in the estuaries and mangrove channels of Bangladesh.

 

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Jan 2017 update on the decline of the Vaquita

As noted in the 16 December 2016 posting on this site, CIRVA (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita) met in November to update its findings and recommendations concerning vaquita science and conservation. The meeting report, which was officially released today, concludes that the species population has continued its precipitous decline. It numbered only around 30 individuals (95% CRI 8 to 96) by autumn 2016, a decline of nearly 50% since 2015, according to results from the acoustic monitoring program (following the published methodology of Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2016 and also Taylor et al. 2016).

Illegal fishing, mainly for totoaba, has continued at alarming levels despite best efforts by the Mexican Government (including the Mexican Navy) in collaboration with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Once again CIRVA stressed, given that the current two-year rangewide ban on gillnets will expire in April 2017, the sale, possession and use of gillnets must be permanently banned in the northern Gulf of California if the vaquita is to survive. Reluctantly, but on the basis of extreme concern over the safety of vaquitas in their natural habitat, the committee also recommended  that the Mexican Government put in place a carefully planned, step-wise attempt to determine whether some vaquitas can be caught and held in a temporary sanctuary until they can be safely returned to a gillnet-free environment (http://www.vaquitacpr.org)

 

 

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Progress on Chinese White Dolphin (CWD) Research and Conservation Initiative

The project previously described (see 29 June 2016 news item) has proceeded as planned over the past half-year. A stakeholder workshop organized by Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) took place in Hong Kong on 10-13 January 2017. More than 55 participants, including fishermen, government officials, scientists, and NGO representatives from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and several foreign countries, engaged in discussions aimed at developing a conservation action plan for the humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) in the Pearl River Estuary (PRE). This meeting built upon work led by Phil Miller of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) to produce a Population Viability Analysis. It was organized and chaired by Onnie Byers, Chair of the CBSG.

An adult humpback dolphin surfaces in Hong Kong waters of the Pearl River Estuary. Photo credit: Lindsay Porter

The framework document to be produced from the workshop, which will include a draft action plan, is expected to be available by the end of May 2017 and will be posted on this website. The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) has been investing in CWD conservation efforts and provided funding for both Miller’s PVA work and the January 2017 workshop. OPCFHK will apply for further funding to support its continuing oversight of implementation of many of the research and conservation actions called for in the action plan. Participation in the workshop by scientists and managers from mainland China was encouraging; their continued engagement will be critical to success.

Action plan implementation is to be guided by the independent Steering Committee consisting of Bob Brownell, Frances Gulland, Phil Hammond (replacing Rohan Currey), Randy Reeves (chair), Wang Ding, and Randy Wells. It should be noted that in addition to the CSG members on the Steering Committee, CSG members Tom Jefferson and Lindsay Porter attended and, very importantly, have been contributing to a collaborative effort led by Wells to combine all available photo-identification material on humpback dolphins in the PRE and make this data set available to all participating CWD researchers, to enable more rigorous population analyses.

 

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Update on the Vaquita

In June 2016, we reported that the survey conducted in September–December 2015 had shown that only about 60 vaquitas were left (as detailed in the CIRVA-7 report). Despite valiant efforts by the Mexican government and NGOs, it clear that illegal gillnet fishing for totoaba, the primary driver for the vaquita’s dramatic recent decline, continues. The acoustic monitoring program in summer 2016 found that the decline rate has accelerated, making extinction imminent. For more information, see the NOAA Fisheries website.

Also, note that a new CIRVA report (CIRVA-8 in late November 2016) and a new abundance estimate will be released in due course and communicated here on the IUCN/SSC CSG news feed.

 

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Proposed Live Captures of Cetaceans, Seals and Penguins in Namibia

In March 2016 a proposal to capture African penguins, marine mammals (cetaceans and pinnipeds) and sharks was submitted to the Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) by a partnership of two companies: “Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research Pty Ltd” and “Beijing Rare Animal Breeding & Promotion Co”. According to an article in the newspaper The Namibian, the proposed captures would include, annually, “…300 to 500 African penguins; five to 15 killer whales; 50 to 100 common bottlenose dolphins; 50 to 100 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins; 500 to 1 000 Cape fur seals; and various sharks.”

Concern was raised in May 2016 when a Russia-registered ship named the Ryazanovka docked in Lüderitz before moving onto Walvis Bay. The Ryazanovka has been involved in the capture of killer whales in eastern Russia, most recently two killer whales captured in the Magadan region (northern Okhotsk Sea) in 2015. Chinese and Russian parks have been the principal buyers of killer whales captured in the Russian Far East in recent years. According to a recent report by the China Cetacean Alliance, as of October 2015, there were captive cetaceans in at least 36 parks in China, with others under construction. Demand for exotic marine exhibits is clearly high.  The vessel has apparently been sold to local buyers in Namibia (according to the Namibian newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung) and has since been at anchor in Walvis Bay, although a 9 December article suggests the vessel is bunkering and taking on other supplies.

iucn

Namibian conservation groups commented on the proposal soon after it was received. Their concerns included the fact that African penguins are greatly threatened (Endangered on the IUCN Red List) and the scale of the proposed captures would, if successful, deplete, if not eradicate, local populations of bottlenose dolphins and killer whales in a very short period of time.  The most recent abundance estimate of coastal bottlenose dolphins in Namibia is ~100 animals. The proposal attempts to justify the capture of penguins and marine mammals by suggesting this would slow declines in fishery production, an unfounded and widely discredited assumption worldwide. Opposition to the proposal has also been prevalent in the Namibian press, and both national and international NGOs have submitted letters of objection to the MFMR.

The Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission submitted a letter (also saved in the CSG Letters page) to the Permanent Secretary of MFMR on 14 October (copied to the Minister and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism). The immediate response from the Permanent Secretary was that a decision had not yet been reached and that the application did not guarantee permission. This was further to assurances that a decision would be made in early October. However as of 14 December no official decision had yet been forthcoming.

 

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Amazon River dolphins in Brazil continue to be killed for fish bait

It has been known for some time that fishermen have been killing freshwater dolphins in the Amazon and using them as bait for catfish (Mintzer et al. 2013; Iriarte & Marmontel 2013; Brum et al. 2015).  A recent report from Brazil found that following the decline of a regional delicacy, the catfish species called the ‘capaz’ (Pimelodus grosskopfii), fishermen started targeting a different catfish species, known in Brazil as ‘piracatinga’ and in Colombia as ‘mota’ (Calophysus macropterus), that is traditionally disliked by Brazilians because it is a scavenger (Cunha et al. 2015). DNA analysis by Cunha et al. revealed that this fish is being marketed under a variety of fictitious names including ‘douradinha’. River dolphin carcasses provide ideal bait for attracting large numbers of the carrion-feeding piracatinga. Indeed, the presence of dolphin tissue in piracatinga stomachs was confirmed by mtDNA control region sequencing (Cunha et al 2015).

Foetus of an amazon river dolphin being pulled from its mother

Foetus of an Amazon river dolphin being pulled from its mother as she is chopped up for catfish bait. Photo Credit: Alerta Vermelho (www.alertavermelho.org.br)

This use of dolphins as bait is directly linked to dramatic declines in dolphin populations in parts of the Amazon. A 5-year legal moratorium on fishing for piracatinga came into force in Brazil on 1 January 2016. Although the legal text justifying this temporary ban refers to implications for human health (piracatinga have high levels of mercury in their tissues), the trigger for passage of the act was public outrage over the killing of dolphins to supply bait. However, despite the ban, the trade in piracatinga in Brazil continues and therefore dolphins continue to be killed. Observations by scientists studying the dolphins in the central Amazon indicate that enforcement is weak and that the dolphins (and caimans) are still greatly threatened, at least in some large parts of their range.

Brum, S.M., V.M.F. Silva, F. Rossoni and L. Castello. 2015. Use of dolphins and caimans as bait for Calophysus macropterus (Lichtenstein, 1819) (Siluriformes: Pimelodidae) in the Amazon. Journal of Applied Ichthyology 31(4):675-680.

Cunha, H.A., V.M. da Silva, T.E. Santos, S.M. Moreira, N.A. do Carmo and A.M. Solé-Cava. 2015 When you get what you haven’t paid for: molecular identification of “douradinha” fish fillets can help end the illegal use of river dolphins as bait in Brazil. Journal of Heredity 106(S1):565-572.

Iriarte, V. and M. Marmontel. 2013. Insights on the use of dolphins (boto, Inia geoffrensis and tucuxi, Sotalia fluviatilis) for bait in the piracatinga (Calophysus macropterus) fishery in the western Brazilian Amazon. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 13(2):163-173.

Mintzer, V.J., A.R. Martin, V.M. da Silva, A.B. Barbour and K. Lorenzen and T.K. Frazer. 2013. Effect of illegal harvest on apparent survival of Amazon River dolphins (Inia geoffrensis). Biological Conservation 158:280-286.

 

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Arabian Sea humpback whales are one of only four populations still considered Endangered under the United States revised Endangered Species Act listing.

*This article is a re-post of a recent WWF media release http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?278471/Arabian-Sea-humpback-whales-one-of-only-four-populations-still-considered-endangered-after-lengthy-US-review

Following an extensive review process that started in 2009 and was finalized in September 2016, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has revised the status of humpback whale populations around the world under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The modified listing recognizes the Arabian Sea population as one of only four humpback whale populations around the globe that is not recovering from historical whaling, and is at high risk of extinction without serious conservation efforts.

Humpback whale off the coast of the Sultanate of Oman ©Environment Society of Oman

Humpback whale off the coast of the Sultanate of Oman ©Environment Society of Oman

A Biological Review Team examined hundreds of scientific studies and reports that demonstrate how the majority of humpback whale populations around the world are increasing following the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial hunting of this species in 1966.  Careful consideration led to the designation of fourteen “Distinct Population Segments” (DPS), nine of which are no longer considered to be in immediate danger of extinction, and have thus been “de-listed”.  A DPS is treated equivalent to a species under the ESA.

However, five populations have not shown the same signs of increase toward recovery, and are still listed as Endangered or Threatened.  Of these, the Arabian Sea population is the smallest, most distinct, and most at risk.  Its range is believed to extend from the coasts of Yemen and Oman in the west to Iran, Pakistan and India in the east.

The notice states: “The Arabian Sea DPS faces unique threats, given that the whales do not migrate, but instead feed and breed in the same, relatively constrained geographic location. Energy exploration and fishing gear entanglements are considered likely to seriously reduce the population’s size and/or growth rate, and disease, vessel collisions, and climate change  are likely to moderately reduce the population’s size or growth rate….. The…. Arabian Sea DPS [is] in the ‘at high risk of extinction’ category.”

 

Map showing the 14 humpback whale Distinct Population Segments (DPS) now recognized under the United States’ Endangered Species Act. Of the four populations that remain Endangered, the Arabian Sea population (number 14 on this map), is considered the most distinct and the most likely to become extinct without conservation intervention. Source: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html

Map showing the 14 humpback whale Distinct Population Segments (DPS) now recognized under the United States’ Endangered Species Act. Of the four populations that remain Endangered, the Arabian Sea population (number 14 on this map), is considered the most distinct and the most likely to become extinct without conservation intervention. Source: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html

The Biological Review Team that conducted the 6-year long review process considered evidence from the Arabian Sea that includes information on illegal hunting of whales by Soviet whaling fleets in the 1960’s, fifteen years’ worth of dedicated whale research off the coast of Oman, and a few opportunistic sightings and strandings of whales along the coasts of Pakistan and India.  Data from Oman provide evidence that the population is extremely small, numbering fewer than 100 individuals, and confirm the Soviet whalers’ speculation that Arabian Sea humpback whales comprise the only non-migratory population of humpback whales in the world.  Genetic evidence shows the population to be distinct and no longer in breeding contact with any other humpback whale populations in the Indian Ocean.

These factors, coupled with ever-increasing threats from entanglement in fishing gear, strikes by vessels in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and noise from shipping, coastal development and offshore oil and gas exploration, are cause for serious concern.  The population also has high levels of liver abnormalities and skin disease, which may render them more vulnerable to other diseases or stressors. Furthermore, this non-migratory population, restricted to the “cul de sac” of the Arabian Sea, has no alternative feeding or breeding grounds should climate change or an environmental disaster on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon irrevocably change the dynamics of their limited habitat.

engangled-whale-off-oman-2A humpback whale entangled in a gill net off the coast of Oman (© Environment Society of Oman).

A humpback whale entangled in a gill net off the coast of Oman (© Environment Society of Oman).

While the Endangered Species Act most directly affects whales present within US waters, it also applies on the high seas to any vessels or persons under US jurisdiction.  The notice states that while the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) provide significant protections to all large whales, there are no formalized governmental or inter-governmental conservation efforts for the Arabian Sea humpback whale.  To address the lack of coordinated effort to save this population from extinction, whale researchers and conservation organisations from Arabian Sea range states have joined together in the Arabian Sea Whale Network.  Very much a grass-roots initiative, this network strives to support whale research and conservation efforts in the region.  Together with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), The Environment Society of Oman and the US Marine Mammal Commission, WWF has played a critical role in supporting the formation of this network.

Network members in Pakistan, India, Oman and Iran are conducting research to better describe the range and status of the population and working with local stakeholders to mitigate threats, but they lack sufficient funding.  As a result, we know almost nothing about the whales’ current distribution, numbers, or specific habitat needs in their suspected range outside of Oman. Funding is also needed at a regional level to support training and awareness-raising at all levels, and to better coordinate collaborative research and conservation work. Overall, without significant governmental efforts and stakeholder involvement to reduce the threat of whale entanglement in fishing gear along all the coastlines of its range and to address the risk of ship-strike in corridors of high shipping activity, the outlook for the Arabian Sea humpback whale population looks bleak.  Cooperation has been successful in other regions of the world as in the ongoing efforts to conserve gray whales in the western Pacific. Only through collaboration by governments, NGO’s, IGO’s, industry and other relevant stakeholders can we hope to overcome the odds and address the threats to Arabian sea humpback whales.

For more information, contact Arabian Sea Whale Network coordinator Gianna Minton  (gianna.minton@gmail.com) or look at our website:  https://arabianseawhalenetwork.org/

 

 

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