WASHINGTON (CN) – The Taiwanese humpback dolphin, one of the rarest dolphins in the world, now has federal protection with the National Marine Fisheries Service set to publish a regulation Wednesday listing the dolphins as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
“This is a day of hope for the Taiwanese humpback dolphin. This small population could vanish within our lifetimes if help doesn’t come very soon. Sadly, small cetaceans around the world are in trouble,” said Dr. Abel Valdivia, ocean scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We saw the baiji go extinct in China, and now the vaquita in Mexico in on the brink of extinction. This listing will serve as a wakeup call for the Taiwanese authorities to do more to protect these unique humpback dolphins.”
The Taiwanese dolphins’ population is estimated to number fewer than 75. They live in a restricted range in the shallow coastal waters off western Taiwan, where a new wind farm adds an additional threat due to the underwater noise of the pile drivers.
Dolphins and other cetaceans like whales are very sensitive to the noise pollution that is increasingly prevalent in the world’s oceans. Because cetaceans use sonar to locate prey and communicate, damage caused by water-borne noise can harm the animals or even result in death.
This threat was identified in the comments received by the fisheries service to the listing proposal they published last year. The wind farm comments were submitted by three conservation groups that petitioned on behalf of protecting the dolphins in 2016.
“Acoustic disturbance is likely a threat that compounds other threats to the population by decreasing foraging success, increasing stress, and decreasing immune health. As such, we ranked this threat as ‘moderate,’ meaning that it is likely that this particular threat contributes significantly to the subspecies’ risk of extinction,” the regulation states. The fisheries service added that numerous wind farms scheduled to be built in the dolphins’ tiny range are likely to increase the threat in the future.
The effort to list these dolphins as endangered has not been straightforward. In 2013, the WildEarth Guardians sent a petition to the fisheries service seeking protections for 81 marine species. At that time, the dolphins were considered to be a distinct population segment of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. The fisheries service rejected that classification and declined to protect the dolphins.
In 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity partnered with the Guardians group and the Animal Welfare Institute with a petition that included new taxonomic information showing the dolphins were actually a separate subspecies, not a distinct population segment. The fisheries service accepted that classification and the dolphins underwent a 12-month status review that resulted in last year’s listing proposal.
“These rare dolphins deserve every possible chance to escape extinction, and we are thrilled that NMFS has stepped up and given them the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “A myriad of dolphin species are at risk due to human activities, and we owe these intelligent creatures the best protections we can give them.”
These dolphins are often called pink dolphins, but are actually gray fading to white that looks pink as they age. They are long-lived, and do not mature until they are 12 to 14 years old, and do not have a prolific reproductive rate. These factors add to threats from fishing by-catch, pollution, loss of habitat, net entanglement, ship strikes, ocean noise and other human-caused factors, and make the survival of every reproducing adult critical to the species’ survival.
“This is good news that will help these rare dolphins avoid extinction. International cooperation is the key to saving certain critically endangered species. Now that they made the right call on this listing, federal officials should immediately start working with Taiwan on a recovery plan,” Valdivia said. “The Endangered Species Act is a powerful tool that can still save the Taiwanese humpback dolphin and other small cetaceans struggling to survive.”
When asked how listing this foreign species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act will actually help the dolphins, Steven Jones from the Center for Biological Diversity said in an email that it allows the United States to put pressure on Taiwan.
“Upon listing, the National Marine Fisheries Service will encourage Taiwan to address pollution, illegal fishing, boat traffic and other threats these small dolphins face in the shallow waters along Taiwan’s densely populated west coast. This includes developing environmental impact assessments of different coastal projects that may affect the habitat of these species (e.g., wind turbines, land reclamation, fishing practices),” Jones said.
“ESA listing provides a pathway for U.S. federal agency to work with foreign governments to help prevent the extinction and promote recovery of imperiled species. But ultimately is up to the host country’s authorities to do the heavy lifting. NMFS can provide scientific and management advice, collaborate with local managers and scientists, and in some cases provide limited financial support,” Jones said.
The final listing for endangered status will be effective 30 days from the expected publication date of the rule on May 9.