Rare dolphins threatened by boat strikes, fishing gear
Snubfin dolphins are Australia’s only endemic dolphin species and are found only in Australia’s tropical northern waters. The species was not known to exist before 2005, when it was first scientifically described.
Of 161 snubfin dolphins identified in coastal waters around the tourist town of Broome, 124
were photographed and a staggering 63 per cent bore scars from vessel strikes, fishing nets
and fishing lines.
Small whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as ‘small cetaceans’) are disappearing from the world’s oceans and waterways as they fall victim to fishing gear, pollution, and habitat loss – compounded by a lack of conservation measures such as those developed for great whales, according to a 2009 WWF report.
Small Cetaceans: The Forgotten Whales revealed that all small cetacean species for which the population trend is known are in decline, and inadequate conservation measures are pushing them toward extinction.
Small cetaceans fulfill a critical role in their environment, stabilising and ensuring a healthy and productive ecosystem. They also are part of the highly profitable whale and dolphin watching industry, which generates around US $2.1 billion each year worldwide.
“It’s startling to think that a rare population of Australia’s only native dolphin species would be
carrying such a high number of injuries,” said Lydia Gibson, WWF-Australia’s spokesperson on tropical marine species.
“The area where these dolphins feed and breed is a hotspot for boating and fishing. Human activity is having a massive impact on the resident population of these rare dolphins.”
WWF researchers discovered the high incidence of snubfin dolphin injuries by chance as they documented the species in and around Roebuck Bay.
The study’s findings did not include snubfin dolphins that may have died from their injuries
(unrecoverable due to strong tides, sharks and other scavengers), meaning the proportion of
strikes could be far higher.
“Roebuck Bay’s shallow waters are popular for recreational boating activities. On top of this,
coastal development, petroleum exploration, tourism and fishing increase the number of vessels in the area and add to the risk of these dolphins being injured,” Ms Gibson said.
ING DIRECT, Australia’s largest online bank, has funded WWF’s snubfin dolphin campaign
since 2007, working closely with the conservation organisation on its snubfin projects, including the release of the latest report.
“It’s remarkable that of 12 international whale and dolphin injury studies, Australia manages to top the list as the country with the highest injury rate to dolphins species,” said David Breen, Head of Corporate Affairs, ING DIRECT.
“This new research shows that human activities are having a huge impact on the snubfin
dolphin’s survival. We are dedicated to working with researchers to understand more about
these remarkable creatures, to help safeguard them long into the future.”
Among many suggested reforms to help protect this population of snubfin dolphins, the WWF
•Implementing speed limits of 5 knots around creeks, mangroves, seagrass and shallow
areas of Roebuck Bay;
•Warning boaters to maintain a lookout for dolphins and other wildlife, and slowing to
•Urging fishermen to recover monofilament line and nets, and not to fish inside mangrove
areas due to high risk of line entanglement;
•Educating the public and asking them to help photograph and document local snubfin
“Reform to boat regulation is critical to the snubfin dolphin’s survival,” said Ms Gibson. “Simple actions can help remedy this problem in Roebuck Bay.
“However, it is just as important for state, territory and federal governments to uplist the current conservation status of the snubfin dolphin to ‘threatened’, and rapidly identify and protect ‘hotspots’ of snubfin dolphins across northern tropical Australia.”