Urgent call by global experts for our most vulnerable whales, dolphins and porpoises worldwide

Posted on September, 29 2020

20th Century whaling nearly wiped out many species of whale worldwide. While some species, such as humpback whales, have bounced back due to strong management measures, a third of the world's cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - are still threatened with extinction.

The critically endangered Vaquita porpoise, only found in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico, sits poised on the knife-edge of extinction, with an estimated population size that may be as low as ten individuals. In New Zealand, Māui Dolphins, with only about 60 individuals remaining, are also in urgent need of complete threat removal to enable recovery. Even large whales like the North Atlantic Right Whale are in trouble with only 250 left. Many discrete populations  could become locally or regionally extinct. 

Many factors, from chemical and noise pollution, loss of habitat and prey, climate change, disease and ship-strikes are adversely affecting various populations. However,  foremost among the threats for many species is bycatch, the incidental take in fishing operations, including abandoned fishing nets known as ghost gear. Many cetaceans experts are worried that populations are slipping towards extinction within our lifetimes.

River dolphins are struggling to survive in some of the world's greatest rivers - such as the Amazon, Ganges, and Yangtze - due to similar threats. All five species are endangered, with populations in the Mekong and Irrawaddy less than 100.

Whales and dolphins are crucial indicators of ocean and river health.  They play a key role in ecosystems that are critical for people and nature.

“While we’ve made progress on some species, many others remain under pressure globally. An estimated 300,000 cetaceans are killed each year as a result of fisheries bycatch, while populations are suffering from increasing ship traffic and loss of important habitats crucial for their survival. Now is the time to act.” said Chris Johnson, WWF Global Lead, Protecting Whales & Dolphins Initiative.

Growing concern of a lack of action to address threats to cetaceans  in our seas and major river systems has led over 270 experts to come together to voice a warning about the extinction risk to many of our most vulnerable species worldwide.

This week, global experts come together in a virtual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Conservation Committee to consider a wide range of conservation issues crucial to addressing a range of threats to cetaceans and their habitats. WWF will work to ensure that the meeting provides practical solutions.

“Besides the increasing threats to all cetaceans worldwide, such as bycatch and poor water quality, the five species of river dolphins living in South America and Asia suffer from an extra challenge: fragmentation of their rivers. Mainly due to hydropower dams, many rivers have been segmented, drastically reducing  dolphins’ room to roam and impacting fish populations that they depend on,.” remarks Daphne Willems, WWF Global Lead of the River dolphin rivers Initiative.

“The recent WWF Living Planet Report notes serious declines in species population trends including cetaceans. Healthy populations are a measure of overall ecosystem health, and our planet is flashing red warning signs.  But there is time to respond.  Implementing science-based solutions such as networks of marine protected areas can help reduce cumulative impacts and protect our most vulnerable species.” said Mr. Johnson.

Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor porpoise (Phocoena sinus) caught in fishing nets, Baja California, Mexico.
Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor porpoise (Phocoena sinus) caught in fishing nets, Baja California, Mexico.
© National Geographic Stock/Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures / WWF
An Amazon river dolphin
© naturepl.com/Doc White/WWF