Saturday, February 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

With Fewer Than 100 Left, Pink Dolphins Slated as Endangered

Extremely rare Taiwanese humpback dolphins are proposed for endangered species listing as the clock ticks on their rapidly diminishing population.

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed listing the Taiwanese humpback dolphin as an endangered species as their tiny population continues to dwindle. The agency had previously rejected a 2014 petition to list these pink and gray dolphins under the Endangered Species Act as a distinct population segment of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin after determining that they did not meet the criteria for designation as a distinct population segment.

Another petition, filed in March 2016 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the WildEarth Guardians and the Animal Welfare Institute, provided new taxonomic information that these dolphins are actually a separate subspecies, not a distinct population segment. As noted in the agency’s 90-day evaluation of the petition, the Taxonomy Committee of the Society for Marine Mammalogy officially revised the taxonomy after a new study delineated the differences. The positive 90-day finding that the 2016 petition presented substantial information indicating ESA listing could be warranted triggered the 12-month review that resulted in the current proposal to list the species as endangered.

“This proposed rule is a major victory for the Taiwanese white dolphin,” Dr. Naomi Rose, Animal Welfare Institute’s marine mammal scientist said. “We applaud the U.S. for taking this significant step toward recognizing the plight of this subspecies, which is on the brink of extinction. Even though the subspecies exists solely in Taiwanese waters, this listing will promote stronger protection for the population by Taiwanese authorities, hopefully in cooperation with U.S. input.”

The dolphins, also known as Taiwanese white dolphins, or Matsu’s fish in Taiwan, are actually white, which appears pink, with gray mottling that diminishes with age. The dolphins are about nine feet long and have a comparatively small dorsal fin that rises from a wide hump on their backs. They are found in a “very restricted range, residing in the shallow coastal waters of central western Taiwan,” according to the listing proposal. The latest population estimate, using data collected between 2007 and 2010, indicates the population ranged from 54 to 74, the action notes.

“These rare dolphins need protection if they’re going to survive. Small cetaceans like the white dolphin of Taiwan or the vaquita in Mexico will disappear forever if we don’t work together to save them,” Abel Valdivia, an ocean scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “The U.S. action recognizes that international cooperation is needed to save certain species from extinction.”

Cetaceans are marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. The vaquita porpoise in Mexico is the rarest cetacean, with its population estimated to be below 30, and the baijji dolphin in China has not been found since 2006 and is considered to be functionally extinct, meaning that if any remaining members are found, they would not constitute a viable population. Cetaceans are typically long-lived, slow to reach reproductive age and have low reproductive rates. These factors add to the difficulty of an at-risk cetacean species to recover from the loss of reproducing adults due to fishery bycatch and entanglements in fishing gear, or other human-caused deaths such as vessel strikes, discharge of toxic pollution into their habitat, or other habitat destruction.

“Today’s decision is an important step in preventing the extinction of this critically imperiled dolphin and getting it on the road to recovery,” Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians said. “We urge the Fisheries Service to quickly finalize these essential protections and work with our Taiwanese allies to address the serious threats to the dolphin’s survival and recovery.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency tasked with ESA listing actions for land-based species, notes that 99 percent of the species listed under the ESA, including foreign species, have survived. Unfortunately, marine species have not been listed at the same rate under the ESA as land-based species have.

“Benefits of ESA protection to foreign species are primarily realized in the form of restrictions on trade and may include prohibitions on certain activities including import, export, take, commercial activity, interstate commerce, and foreign commerce,” Katherine Brogan with NOAA Public Affairs told Courthouse News. “In addition, listing under the ESA can also increase global awareness of the threats faced by the species, which may fuel conservation efforts for the species in its range countries.”

Comments on the listing proposal are due by Aug. 25. Public hearing requests are due by Aug. 10.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.