These days, it’s sometimes easy to forget that wild cetaceans face a gauntlet of epic threats from human activities in their ocean habitat. Having worked for nearly 30 years as a marine mammal ecotoxicologist in Europe, Africa, North America, South America and Asia, I’ve seen plenty of bad news stories. But none have evoked more of a visceral reaction that the plight of the Taiwanese white dolphin.
With fewer than 75 individuals left in the world, and their habitat overrun by all manner of human threats, you’d think they would merit help from responsible agencies.
Discovered by scientists only in 2002, these white dolphins live in shallow nearshore waters (averaging 7 meters deep) along the west coast of Taiwan. And just about everything in the habitat spells trouble. Gills nets and other fishing lines injure and kill dolphins, with 35% bearing nasty scars from such interactions. The major rivers that create rich estuaries full of dolphin food are running dry as humans divert water for industry, agriculture or household use. Pollution spews forth from large factories, with acrid smoke in the air and toxic effluent in water moving westwards away from land and into dolphin food webs. Dolphin habitat is disappearing as factories are built on ‘reclaimed land’ in nearshore coastal waters – akin to artificial islands.
And now an otherwise unsuspecting sector may push the dolphins over the edge: wind turbines built for green energy. Installed in coastal waters up to 50 meters deep – in and around dolphin habitat – each turbine may require more than 2,500 very loud strikes from pile drivers. Enough noise to damage hearing, mask the ability of dolphins to find food, or disrupt communications with each other. With only 3-4 calves born every year, the threat of separation of mother and baby as a consequence of wind farm construction becomes not merely a sad sidebar in Mother Nature’s grand ocean story, but a potentially ominous occurrence on the path to extinction.
This hits close to home for me. I have been leading a scientific advisory body working to save the Taiwanese white dolphin since 2007, and helped deliver practical solutions to vexing conservation threats. The tantalizing feature of this bleak picture in Taiwan is simple: if we choose to save the dolphin, we can. We know what the threats are, and we know what steps we need to take to protect them and their habitat.
Recently, we convened a team of international scientists to assess the risks of windfarm construction to the dolphins and set out a series of recommendations for ‘beyond best practices’ for industry, as well as guidance for the government. Also contributing to the solutions agenda at the workshop were the Vancouver Aquarium’s Director of Marine Mammal Research, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, and Research Associate Kathy Heise.
Our team came up with guiding principles for the windfarm sector including:
- Locate wind turbines away from areas where dolphins are found
- Use engineering practices that are ‘better-than-best’ at reducing noise and disturbance during the construction
- Reduce the threat of fisheries interactions now and during windfarm construction and operation, since construction may exacerbate the impact of fisheries.
Taiwan seeks to reduce reliance on fossil fuel use and nuclear energy, but the proposed windfarms must take into account the needs of the Critically Endangered Taiwanese white dolphin. If construction of these offshore windfarms is done properly, there is the promise of clean energy and increased domestic energy security in Taiwan, and hope for the Taiwanese white dolphin. If these projects proceed with little regard to the dolphins, the risk of extinction looms large on the horizon.
Aquablog post by Peter S. Ross, Director of the Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Pollution Research Program and Chairman of the International Taiwanese white dolphin Recovery Panel.