Endangered Species Handbook

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Dolphin and Small Cetacean Fisheries

     The killing of dolphins and Pilot Whales is not covered by the IWC regulations, and as restrictions on killing the great whales increase, some countries are turning to small cetaceans.  The true extent of dolphin killing around the world is not known but is presumed to be well over 100,000 animals per year, with more than 60 species subject to commercial harvest.  Sri Lanka, Turkey and other countries have unregulated--but considerable--dolphin fisheries.  No international treaties cover this slaughter other than CITES, which lists some dolphins and porpoises on Appendix I, banning trade, and the rest on Appendix II, which regulates it.  The fisheries may be endangering numerous species and eliminating local populations.  Japanese fishermen are killing Dall's Porpoises (Phocoenoides dalli) in large numbers.  These porpoises are known to "bow-ride" in the wake of their small dories.  Taking advantage of this apparent dolphin game, fishermen are harpooning the frolicking dolphins in their backs with steel-barbed weapons, causing a painful and slow death.  The meat is then marketed as "whale."  At least 560 boats are killing these small black-and-white porpoises off the Japanese coast (Currey 1990).  Approximately 111,500 of these porpoises were killed by Japan from 1986 to 1989 (Nowak 1999).  In 1990, the IWC passed a Resolution calling for a reduction in the number of Dall's Porpoises killed to at least 10,000, but Japan killed 17,634 the following year (Chan et al. 1995a).  The Japanese continue this killing, using 80 fishing boats that pursue migrating herds throughout the year.  An estimated 67 percent of Dall's Porpoises have been killed by the Japanese, who killed 65,159 of these porpoises between 1990 and 1993 (Chan et al. 1995a).  Annual kill is now about 20,000 and seems to involve mainly immature animals (Nowak 1999).  The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists this species as Conservation Dependent, in spite of the fact that there seems to be little conservation preserving this species.
     Striped Dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) have been nearly eliminated along the Japanese coast (Currey 1990).  Recent statistics from the IWC show that Japan whales 18 species of small cetaceans, and kills many thousands more as incidental catch in its fisheries (Chan et al. 1995a).  The 76,295 of these dolphins killed directly make up only a portion of their human-caused mortality; added to this, 35,002 Striped Dolphins drowned in fishing nets, for a total of 111,297 killed between 1990 and 1993 (Chan et al. 1995a).  The combined killing from these two causes is resulting in declines.  It, too, is listed as Conservation Dependent by the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
     When Atlantic Pilot Whales (Globicephala melaena) gather in the bays of the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic, as they probably have for thousands of years, they encounter local fishermen, who herd them toward the shore in small boats.  Others wade into the water and kill the friendly animals with hooked fishing gaffs--perhaps the cruelest of all the whaling methods. Some use large meat cleavers to literally saw off the Pilot Whales' heads, while the animal writhes in the shallow water.  The Faroese people consider this annual slaughter a "sport" and even encourage very young children to participate.  Years of campaigning by groups such as the Environmental Investigation Agency, which has filmed the hunt in all its gore and shown wounded animals dying slow deaths, have failed to stop it.  In spite of their name, Pilot Whales are actually closely related to dolphins and are social, forming very close-knit clans in which only a few young are born each year. The entire herd cares for the young.  DNA analyses of animals killed in the Faroe Islands showed that all members of individual groups are related to one another.  These herds are led by older females, who are the repositories of learned information about food sources and other survival lore (Harrison and Bryden 1988).  This partly explains why they follow one another when one becomes stranded and keep returning to the beach if turned back to sea.
     Chilean fishermen kill thousands of Commerson's Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) to use their meat as crab bait.  These small dolphins resemble miniature Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) with their black-and-white coloration, although their body form is similar to that of Harbor Porpoises.  Only about 4.8 feet long, these dolphins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere from Argentina south to the Kerguelen Islands (Harrison and Bryden 1988).  So many have been killed that their population has declined precipitously.  A closely related species, Hector's Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori), native to New Zealand waters, has declined from pollution and trawling, which drowns thousands. The New Zealand government banned trawling within a 1,170-square- kilometer area where the species congregates.  Its status has become more endangered in the past four years, and the IUCN raised its status from Vulnerable in 1996 to Endangered in 2000.
     Russia announced early in 1997 that it is considering a return to commercial whaling, targeting Belugas, or White Whales (Delphinapterus leucas).  They claim that these whales are depleting cod stocks in the White Sea, echoing the unscientific claims of Norway's scientists.  These small whales have declined in many parts of their ranges.  In the Arctic, Belugas swim in small groups, using their sophisticated echolocation system to navigate and locate fish in this frozen environment (Harrison and Bryden 1988).  They have extremely flexible bodies, enabling them to rotate their flippers and heads, to twist their bodies around, and even to swim backwards using their flukes (Harrison and Bryden 1988).  Recent research on captive Belugas at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has revealed them to be talented mimics, able to imitate a great variety of sounds (Yovich 1996).  In one case, Belugas in a tank next to another tank used to train a dolphin with a low-frequency tone, began making the identical sound, which was a signal for the dolphin to swim away.  Researchers were at first confounded when the dolphin would swim away before they gave her the tone sound, only to find out that the Belugas were mimicking it, either out of mischief or as a normal behavior (Yovich 1996).  Their talents at mimicry extend to imitating whistles, human-produced sounds, bird calls, fire alarms, and scuba regulator sounds, among others (Yovich 1996).  Research on the use of this talent by wild Belugas is now beginning.
     There are separate populations of Belugas in the Arctic region, and several of these are in steep decline:  the Cumberland Sound population has declined to only about 600 animals; and the St. Lawrence Belugas have declined from 10,000 to only 350 animals, decimated by the effects of pollution from factories (Nowak 1999).  They are now so contaminated that their bodies constitute hazardous waste.  These beautiful whales are hunted in Canada and Greenland by natives in a totally unmonitored fashion, with only fragmentary knowledge of their life history.  Some populations have been reduced 20 percent by hunting (Darling et al. 1995), and for the first time, the IUCN listed this species in the Vulnerable category in its 1996 Red List of Threatened Animals (Baillie and Groombridge 1996).  The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species also listed the species as Vulnerable.  Worldwide populations have declined from 250,000 in 1965 to between 100,000 and 150,000 in 1996 (Yovich 1996), with the lower figure considered more likely (Nowak 1999). 
     Small cetaceans have incurred major declines from direct and indirect killing.  Dolphins and porpoises have only one calf per year, and for some species, many adults are non-breeding members of the herd.  Unrestricted hunting has the potential to endanger many species, and international controls are needed.  Many species and populations of dolphins continue to drown in large numbers in tuna purse seine nets, and pollution has killed a large percentage of the Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean dolphins in the past decade.  The number of threatened and possibly threatened small, saltwater cetaceans has grown from 35 species listed in the 1996 IUCN Red List to 47 species, almost all in the category Data Deficient, indicating that more information is needed about their status, which might show the species to be threatened.  It is an indication of the lack of conservation attention these species have received that so many are listed in this category.  Obviously, much more research is needed.  Dolphins and porpoises have captured our imaginations after many true stories of their having saved people from drowning and their role in the mythology of the Greeks and others.  It is incumbent on us to maintain the diversity of these small cetaceans and prevent them from declining to endangered status or disappearing altogether.

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