There’s only 74 of them left in the world, and they face numerous threats, including pollution, freshwater diversions, noise, habitat destruction, and entanglement in fishing nets. To say that this species is in peril is an understatement.
They’re the rare and genetically distinct Taiwanese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis), and there’s a global effort to save the animal from extinction.
Late last month, Dr. Peter Ross, director of Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, headed to Taiwan to lead efforts by a group of international scientists to save this critically endangered dolphin population.
Dr. Ross is Chairman of the Eastern Taiwan Strait Sousa Technical Advisory Working Group, made up of scientists from around the world. The group was established in 2007 to provide conservation-based scientific advice to recover this tiny population of rare cetaceans.
Only 74 of the biologically distinct Taiwanese white dolphins inhabit the nearshore waters of Taiwan’s west coast, and among the numerous threats they regularly face, they’re often entangled in fishing nets, particularly gillnets. More than a third of the surviving dolphins bear scars from previous entanglements, and some still have nets wrapped around their bodies.
After seven years of research and expert advice, the team of scientists welcomed the recent announcement by Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau that it will designate Major Wildlife Habitat (akin to Critical Habitat in Canada or the US) for the dolphins, and encouraged it to increase the proposed boundaries.
The group also recommended Taiwanese fishers switch to alternative, more selective fishing methods, which will not only protect the dolphins, but also lead to recovered fish stocks and increased income for the fishing industry.
Workshop participants recommended Taiwan set a target to allow the number of dolphins to increase to 100 individuals by 2030. This would improve the population status from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Endangered’, as defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Lead researcher Dr. John Y. Wang, principal biologist of CetAsia Research Group and Assistant Professor at Trent University, who has been monitoring the Taiwanese dolphin population for more than a decade, made a sobering remark that the working group hopes to prevent the Taiwanese white dolphin from suffering the same fate as the now-functionally extinct Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, which was the first cetacean to go extinct at the hands of humans.
“The clock is ticking on the Taiwanese white dolphin. The loss of this population would be devastating,” says Dr. Wang.
The plight of the rare white dolphins adds context and incentive to research with the Vancouver Aquarium’s two Pacific white-sided dolphins, Helen and Hana. Both were rescued as badly injured animals from fixed fishing nets on the east coast of Japan.
The two are now participating in a study to determine whether and how they use echolocation around underwater nets. The goal of the study is to aid in the development of dolphin-safe nets for use around the world, something that might one day help protect critically endangered animals like the Taiwanese white dolphin. To learn more about Hana and Helen’s rescue stories, visit here.
This morning, Dr. Ross gave a presentation on the working group’s efforts to save the dolphins. If you missed it, you can view the talk here: