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Atlantic humpback dolphin moves closer to endangered species protection

The species is at a very high risk of extinction because the dolphins are often unintentionally caught and killed by fishing equipment.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The National Marine Fisheries Service said Thursday it will begin a status review to determine whether the highly threatened Atlantic humpback dolphin should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The species is at “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which put the dolphin on its dire threat red list.

This decision emerges from a petition filed with the agency in September by the Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and VIVA Vaquita detailing the rapid decline of the species.

According to the petition, there are no natural factors known to be threatening the species’ survival, making humans the sole reason these animals are in danger.

"The major threat to the dolphins is bycatch by local gillnet fisheries: The animals are unintentionally caught and killed by fishing gear. These and other fisheries also deplete the dolphins’ prey," the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement Thursday about the NMFS decision.

Being one of the least known species of dolphins in the world, Atlantic humpback dolphins are found only along the western African coast, ranging through at least 13 countries from Western Sahara south to Angola.

Known for their visible hump in front of their dorsal fins, they are the only humpback dolphin species found in the Atlantic Ocean.

They live exclusively in relatively shallow waters where they feed on fish close to the shore, which exposes them to other major threats such as coastal development and noise from human activity such as vessel traffic, oil and gas drilling, dredging and various types of marine construction.

Human-driven noise is one of the most hazardous forms of pollution and has become omnipresent in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, according to the World Health Organization.

With dolphins being highly sensitive to sound, loud noise causes changes in their vocalization behavior that could be detrimental to their navigation, food finding and conspecific communication, and could potentially reduce group cohesion, according to research studies.

The market for Atlantic humpback dolphin meat also appears to be growing as part of the African aquatic wild meat trade.

According to marine wildlife protection agency Ocean Care, "Declining fisheries resources due to overfishing by far-reaching fishing fleets, the use of forbidden and unsustainable fishing techniques coupled with the impact of climate change on coastal communities have caused the rise of wildmeat harvest."

The dolphin's habitats are also contaminated with organochlorine pesticides, heavy and trace metals, and other toxins released by human activity.

"Globally, the ocean is being treated as a waste sink," according to the group Frontiers in Marine Science.

Not only do these pollutants endanger marine life, but they can cause illness and death in humans by exposure through seafood consumption or contact with contaminated seawater. 

The petition says coastal African states are not providing adequate protection to the species to avoid continued population declines.

While protected marine areas exist in some countries in the dolphins’ range, they have limited effectiveness because few laws or regulations exist specifically to conserve the species.

At the conclusion of its status review, the NMFS will examine the presented scientific data and issue a 12-month petition finding, which will determine whether the agency will propose the Atlantic humpback dolphin for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

"Listing under the ESA would significantly improve the species’ survival prospects, by increasing global awareness of the species, assisting research efforts, helping to stimulate funding for important science, and providing financial and legal/political assistance to local and international conservation efforts," the petition seeking protection states.

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Categories / Environment, Government, International, Science

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