Smallest Dolphins and Guitarfish |Inch Toward Federal Protection

     WASHINGTON (CN) – New Zealand’s two tiny dolphin subspecies and two guitarfish species in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea have finally been proposed for Endangered Species Act protection. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s listing proposals are in response to a July 2013 petition from the WildEarth Guardians conservation group to list 81 marine species and subpopulations.
     “More than half of all marine species may be at risk of extinction by 2100 without significant conservation efforts. Despite this grave situation, the U.S. largely fails to protect marine species under the ESA. Only about six percent of the over 2,000 species protected under the Endangered Species Act are marine species,” the Guardians said.
     The four to four and a half feet long dolphins are subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin, which are endemic to New Zealand waters. The South Island Hector’s are found mainly near the southern island of New Zealand, while the extremely rare Maui dolphin is found mainly near the north island. The delayed protection action may be too late for the Maui, which only number about 55 adult individuals, according to the listing action.
     Barbara Maas, endangered species specialist with the NABU International conservation group, maintains that the estimate is closer to 42 Maui dolphins, with only a quarter of those being females old enough to breed.
     Despite some regulations on the NZ fishing industry, many dolphins are still dying due to entanglements in fishing nets. The NMFS noted that fishery bycatch and fishing gear entanglements are the biggest threats to the dolphins, which also face threats from chemical and plastic pollution of ocean waters, mining and energy development activities, and acoustic disturbance.
     Both subspecies of Hector’s dolphins, easily identified by their rounded dorsal fins, live about 20 years, but may not reach sexual maturity until nine years of age. Because the calves remain with the mothers for up to two years, females typically only give birth to their single calves every 2 to 4 years, according to the action.
     The petition findings published Monday in conjunction with the proposals to list the Maui dolphin as endangered, the SI Hector’s dolphin as threatened, and the two guitarfish species as threatened, comes three years after the Guardians petitioned on their behalf. The Endangered Species Act requires a 12-month time frame from the time the petition is received to a determination that the species is either warranted for protection, warranted but precluded by higher listing priorities or not warranted.
     “Today’s finding was over two years overdue and came after WildEarth Guardians filed suit to enforce the Endangered Species Act’s legally binging deadlines. The Fisheries Service now has 12-months to make final listing decisions for the four rare species,” the Guardians said.     
     The common guitarfish, found in the Atlantic from the coast of France to Angola, and the blackchin guitarfish, found from Portugal to Angola and throughout the Mediterranean, are threatened by overfishing and destruction of nursery habitats.
     “It is well past time our government addresses the grave impacts human activity is having on rare marine species,” the Guardians’ staff attorney and petition author Stuart Wilcox, said. “We call on the Fisheries Service to quickly finalize protections for the dolphins and guitarfish and steer U.S. resources to help recover these imperiled species.”
     Because these are foreign species, one of the main effects of ESA protection concerns trade in listed species, which would affect U.S. import of New Zealand fishery products that are not dolphin-safe.
     The agency is also working on improving existing dolphin-safe regulations based on the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and through its seafood traceability action.
     ESA listing also encourages conservation efforts “by federal and state agencies, foreign entities, private groups and individuals,” the agency said.
     Comments and information on the four species must be submitted by Nov. 18. Requests for public hearings must be submitted by Nov. 3.
     Dolphin photo: James Shook; guitarfish photo: Johan Fredriksson

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