Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Wildlife Conservation: Dolphins, whales - death by plastic, death by noise

By Babukar Kashka

Republished kind permission of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NAIROBI (IDN) - Fishing, noise, gillnets, traps, weirs, longlines, trawls, plastic debris, chemicals, seismic surveys, oil exploration, and military sonars are just some of the biggest killers of the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises. All are man-made. The result is that 86 per cent of all toothed whale species are at risk.

The news about this unnoticed but steady killing of species jumped after less than one month since the launch of the UN International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

The Year’s justification is obvious: humans are part of biodiversity, that’s the variety of life; therefore dangers to one form of life are a threat to another. But this simple equation continues to be ignored.

The alarmingly fast extinction of whales and dolphins has been the subject of a new report by the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Large-scale fishing operations are seriously threatening the lives of the majority of toothed whale populations, which include dolphins and porpoises, UNEP alerted in its report on Feb. 4.

Specifically, “some 86 per cent of all toothed whale species are at risk from entanglement and death in gillnets, traps, weirs, longlines and trawls.”

Moreover, lack of food and forced changes in diet as a result of overfishing pose additional threats to 13 of the 72 toothed whale species.

Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of UNEP’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), informed that the Convention continues to address major threats such as by-catch, ship strikes, ocean noise impacts and climate change to safeguard these charismatic marine mammals.


The dangerous extinction of whales and dolphins impacts nearly every place on Earth.

In fact, these make their home in a wide range of marine and freshwater habitats, from the Arctic to the tropics, with some species living in large river systems such as the Amazon, Ganges, Indus and Yangtze.

According to UNEP, the Baiji River Dolphin, which used to live in the Yangtze River, is probably extinct. About 6300 km long, the Yangtze is the longest river in China and Asia, and the third longest in the world, after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon.

The Vaquita porpoise from the northern Gulf of California is facing the same fate with only 150 individuals remaining in the wild, with entanglement in fishing gear claiming an unsustainably high number of both species.


Moreover, many populations of toothed whales were at one point hunted almost to extinction and 50 species continue to be hunted.

More recently, the ingestion of plastic debris or the effects of pollution by an ever-increasing cocktail of chemicals have been reported in 48 toothed whale species.

In addition, habitat degradation from dams and withdrawal of water from rivers and lakes threatens 18 species while ship strikes have a serious impact on 14 species.

Noise caused by seismic explorations, marine construction projects and military sonar pose increasingly greater threats to these marine mammals, UNEP informed.

Add to all the above that noisier oceans threaten whales and dolphins.

In a report at the end of 2008, UNEP informed that increased noises generated by larger numbers of ships, seismic surveys and use of new military sonars are imperilling creatures such as whales and dolphins, who use sound to communicate and find food.


The alarm came from an alliance of wildlife groups at a CMS meeting that year, which urged governments and the private sector to use quieter ship engines, as well as for tightened laws on using seismic surveys to explore for gas and oil, and less intrusive sonar technologies by militaries.

“Underwater, man-made noise is already triggering a kind of acoustic fog and a cacophony of sound in many parts of the world seas and oceans,” said Mark Simmonds, Science Director of the Whale and Conservation Society.

Compounding the problem is the rising acidity levels in the seas and oceans, which could reach a point in the coming decades where noise generated by vessels, surveys and others will travel 70 per cent further than they do currently.

The alert on the extinction of whales and dolphins adds to the huge loss of the very variety of life or biodiversity.

Earlier this year, the Montreal-based Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) secretariat reminded everybody “Humans are part of nature's rich diversity and have the power to protect or destroy it.”

Nevertheless, the current rate of extinction is estimated to be up to 1,000 times higher that the natural rate.


If current loss rates continue, it is expected that an area of 1.3 billion hectares worldwide -- about 1.5 times the United States -- will completely lose its original biodiversity levels by 2050.

This unprecedented loss of biodiversity is being compounded by climate change. More than 30 per cent of all known species may disappear before the end of this century owing to climate change.

According again to the CBD, the variety of life on Earth is “essential to sustaining the living networks and systems that provide us all with health, wealth, food, fuel and the vital services our lives depend on.”

“These losses are irreversible, impoverish us all and damage the life support systems we rely on every day.” And yet: Does anybody care?

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