Category Archives: Conservation

New Paper: Assessing snubfin dolphin conservation status

Last month I co-authored a paper on “Regional Assessment of the Conservation Status of Snubfin Dolphins in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia”. Published in Frontiers in Marine Science, this has been a real slow-burn project! The team originally started work on this back in 2013, and since then the project expanded in both breadth and complexity! But it was one of those projects that was just a real delight to work on because of the endearing nature of the animals and the lovely group of people involved.

Snubfin dolphins – or should that be snub-nosed? (Photo: Sarah Marley)

Snubfin dolphins are also locally-known as ‘snub-nosed dolphins’ – and when you look at their wee faces you can see why! They are generally fairly cryptic animals, sitting quite low in the water with relatively small dorsal fin. So easily overlooked if the sea starts to get a bit choppy! They are also a lot less ‘showy’ than some other dolphin species (I’m looking at you bottlenose!), so more likely to quietly disappear than they are to head over to the research vessel and start a cheeky bow-ride. As a result of this and the fact that they exclusively occur in the tropical waters of northern Australia and southern Papua New Guinea (i.e. a very remote location!), scientists still have a lot to learn about their abundance and habitat use. This is a problem when it comes to assessing the conservation status of a species – how do we know if they need help?

This study aimed to address this issue by building the first comprehensive catalogue of snubfin dolphin sightings in the Kimberley, which is thought to be one of their key areas. One of the cool and unique things about this research was that it collated sightings from multiple sources, such as citizen science initiatives, government archives, online repositories, and scientific publications, as well as dedicated research surveys with local Indigenous communities and Ranger groups. This resulted in over 1,500 sightings across a 17-year period. Sightings were mapped to highlight potential hotspots, link detections with particular environmental features, and identify potentially-suitable habitats.

Known and likely distribution of snubfin dolphins across the Kimberley (Source: Bouchet et al. (2021) Supplementary Figure S6).

We found that snunfin dolphins occur in shallow, inshore habitats that are in the vicinity of freshwater outflows. This supports observations by previous researchers. Worryingly, this brings snubfins into close contact with human threats, such as gillnet fisheries, shark control nets, vessel traffic, noise and chemical pollution, and much else.

Finally, we compared these findings with the criteria used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for defining whether a species is high priority for conservation. Our results suggest that snubfin dolphins are likely ‘Vulnerable’ at a regional scale – i.e. facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. This emphasises the importance of continuing to monitor these dolphins, as well as demonstrating the value of utilising many different sources of sightings data for a difficult-to-study species.

Apart from the opportunity to work with some dear friends, this project was also important because it actively incorporated the expertise of several Indigenous Ranger groups. Going forwards, these groups will play a crucial role as land managers in local conservation efforts.

Red Sky on the Black Isle

In 2014, 22 birds of prey including 16 red kites were found dead in one small area of the Black Isle in Scotland.  One year on, their story has not been forgotten.  Portrayed in a short film by wildlife film-maker Lisa Marley, Red Sky on the Black Isle uses a combination of interviews with locals, beautiful landscape shots, and bird close-ups to tell their tale.

I won’t go on to describe how amazing the film is (I’d much rather you watched it and saw for yourself!).  But being the proud sister, I will showcase some of the media attention Lisa has received as a result of her film.

These include a mix of film reviews and news items praising her handiwork, along with articles showing a renewed outcry from conservation groups demanding to know why this case has never been solved.  The film was also recently shown at an international scientific conference in Spain dedicated to red kite research and conservation.  It seems pretty safe to say that this film has ruffled a few feathers and stirred up some discussion – exactly what a good documentary is supposed to do 🙂

Red_Sky_Official_Poster
Those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh this week have the opportunity to view her film on the big screen!  The aptly (but coincidentally) named Raptor Filmz Short Scottish Film Festival aims to promote and encourage film making in and about Scotland.  It will be screening Red Sky on the Black Isle on 5th February 2016.  Check out the Raptor Filmz Facebook page for more information on location, schedule, and tickets.

For those of you who are unable to view attend, don’t worry – you can still find Lisa on Twitter and Vimeo to follow her work.

Watch This Space film magazine

http://www.watchthisspacefilmmagazine.co.uk/2015/10/28/red-sky-on-the-black-isle-2015/

Press and Journal newspaper

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/highlands/732865/black-isle-raptor-deaths-back-in-the-spotlight-in-new-short-film/

Evening Express newspaper

http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-press-and-journal-aberdeenshire/20151026

Red Kite II International Symposium 2015

http://redkitesymposium2015.com/program/

Raptor Persecution Scotland website

https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/red-sky-on-the-black-isle-new-film-on-the-ross-shire-massacre/

Raptor Politics website

http://raptorpolitics.org.uk/2015/10/23/the-red-sky-on-the-black-isle-new-film-about-the-poisoning-of-16-red-kites-and-several-buzzards-in-2014/

 

Discovering Conservation

Discover Conservation_Sarah InterviewA couple of weeks ago I had a very fun interview with James Borrell, a conservation biologist with a passion for science communication.  Apart from studying the genetics of trees, James is also the founder of Discover Conservation – a website which aims to tell the stories of field scientists and, by doing so, inspire an appreciation for conservation in people around the world.

My interview with Discover Conservation discussed my PhD research on bottlenose and snubfin dolphins in Western Australia, but also touched on my “science story” and how I got where I am today.  It finishes off with some of my advice for young conservationists, particularly those currently trying to find work experience.

Interested in more information?  Read the full article here!

The Last 55: Final chance for Maui’s dolphins

Maui's dolphinFifty-five is not a big number.  But it could mean a world of difference to one small dolphin species in New Zealand.

Maui’s dolphin is the world’s rarest and smallest known subspecies of dolphin.  Found only in New Zealand,they typically range close to the coast in small pods although they can also be found around harbour mouths and further offshore.  But their numbers have been decreasing due to entanglement in fishing gear and disease, with approximately 4 to 5 Maui’s killed each year.  Which doesn’t seem like too many, right?

A bit of maths

In the 1970s, the dolphin population was reportedly around 1,800 individuals.  But the species has rapidly declined since net-setting and trawling were introduced in the 1970s.  A 2012 research study estimated that only 55 Maui’s dolphins now remain.  Suddenly that 4 to 5 death rate seems a lot bigger.  So just since that study was conducted, we are probably already approaching a population size of around 40 animals. Extinction isn’t just a threat – it’s a very real likelihood.

If we are losing 10% of the population each year, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that things aren’t looking good for the Maui’s.  Especially given their slow reproduction rate – females reach maturity at approximately 8 years of age, and only have one calf every 2 – 4 years.

What is being done?

The New Zealand government generally has a pretty good standing when it comes to conservation.  In 2003, a ban on commercial set nets was added to an existing ban on recreational netting from north of Auckland to north of Taranaki, covering out to four nautical miles from shore.  In 2008, this was extended to seven nautical miles and in 2012 the ban on set nets extended further south.  Last year, the Minister of Conservation finalised a Maui’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan, which includes codes of practice for seismic surveys, regulations for inshore boat racing, and the establishment of a Maui’s Dolphin Research Advisory Group.

So are things improving?

Debatable. Although various marine protected areas have been created with the aim of conserving Maui’s dolphins, the government has failed to extend protections to areas where there have been credible recent sightings of the animals.  That’s the thing about marine mammal conservation – these are free-ranging animals who cover large areas in a dynamic habitat.  Thus, the distribution of populations will change over time and so needs constant re-assessment if protected areas are to have a positive effect.  But this is an investment the NZ government seems unwilling to make.

And despite several promising moves on the government’s part, it looks like money might win through in the end.  This week, it has been reported by several news groups that the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary – home to the Maui’s dolphin – has been signed off for oil and gas exploration.

The NZ government signed off a block offer of sea and land in April, which includes a 3,000 square kilometre overlap into the sanctuary.  Oil and gas development in this area could have a devastating impact on Maui’s habitat by increasing levels of underwater noise through seismic surveys, as well as putting the area at greater risk of oil spills.

The government has already had previous bungles with the block offer, with Simon Bridges, the Minister of Energy and Resources signing off New Zealand’s biggest forest park for drilling – despite having never heard of it.  Not exactly reassuring that the government is taking conservation seriously.

In fact, politicians are arguing whether this is even an issue, and NZ Conservation Minister Nick Smith is insisting that there hasn’t been a single observation of a Maui’s dolphin in the proposed exploration area.  So no need to worry.

But you have to wonder how hard they’ve looked?

What you can do

Numerous scientific and conservation groups have already called for the New Zealand government to take action to save the Maui’s dolphin.  Just last week, the International Whaling Commission urged the government to do more to save the species, stating that it had “extreme concern” about the decline in Maui’s dolphins.

In a recent report, the IWC estimated that Maui’s will decline to just 10 adult breeding females in six years and become functionally extinct in less than 20 years – unless their full range is protected from gillnetting and trawling.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.15.55 amWWF have stepped up their “Last 55” campaign to save the Maui’s dolphin, urging parliament to announce permanent measures that remove fishing gear which kills dolphins and help affected fishermen adopt dolphin-friendly fishing methods.   “Anything less will not give the species a fighting chance at survival.”

Support their campaign by signing the WWF online petition here.  And hopefully we can convince the New Zealand government to stop faffing around and start taking effective steps to save the Maui’s dolphin.