Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CARIBBEAN: Unknown State of Whales and Dolphins

Patricia Grogg* - IPS/IFEJ

HAVANA, Jul 18 2007 (IPS) - The Wider Caribbean region is the habitat of a quarter of the planet’s sea mammals, but little is known about the state of their conservation here, warn experts.

Dolphins suffer stress in marine parks, whose educational merits are being questioned. Credit: Photo Stock

Dolphins suffer stress in marine parks, whose educational merits are being questioned. Credit: Photo Stock

The growing exploitation of coastal resources, degradation of habitat, accidental capture, contamination, acoustic pollution and tourism are serious threats to whales and dolphins in the Wider Caribbean, which extends from the Gulf of Mexico, across the Caribbean, to the adjacent Atlantic, explained marine biologist Nathalie Ward, director of the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Network (ECCN).

“There are reasons for concern,” she said, because “for many countries there is still minimal information on their biology and conservation needs.”

The most devastating are the accidents involving fishing nets, which each year kill some 300,000 cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) around the world, far more than the number killed by intentional capture, collisions with boats or by sharks.

However, according to Ward, in the Wider Caribbean it is difficult to make reliable estimates about this, “especially where small-scale or artisanal fisheries account for a high proportion of bycatch,” or accidental killings.

It is essential to have the support of the decision-makers and of the general public, she says, in order to establish measures to mitigate the effect of non-intentional captures, in addition to specific, technical actions, such as modifying fishing nets so that marine mammals don’t get trapped and drown in them.

One encouraging example is a five-year project signed in 2005 by Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela, with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), aimed at reducing accidental capture of cetaceans in shrimp boat drag nets.

The Caribbean marine and coastal environment is exposed to the toxic effects of shoreline development. Contamination from pesticides and agricultural run-off, fuel spills, and waste dumped from ships, as well as the impacts of climate change, are taking a toll on the ecosystems.

Most Caribbean countries are engaging in practices to counter some of these problems, like assessing environmental impacts and creating protected areas, a decisive, long-term element, implemented under the UN’s Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife.

“Conservation actions like the recent establishment of the sister sanctuary between the Dominican Republic’s Marine Mammal Sanctuary (SMMRD) and U.S. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) provides a promising management solution for transboundary marine species,” Ward said.

The two areas, more than 3,000 kilometres apart, protect some 900 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), which live in the U.S. sanctuary from April to December, and then travel to lower latitudes, including the Dominican seas, where they reproduce.

The partnership between the two sanctuaries, the first initiative to protect endangered marine mammals that cover vast geographical areas in migration, means joint monitoring and research, educational collaboration, and construction of scientific infrastructure.

Dolphins and whales are an important tourist attraction, because of their intelligence and personality. But although whale-watching tours, for example, bring economic benefits to communities and governments, the rise in boat traffic could affect their reproduction, feeding and socialisation.

“In many coastal areas, increased development from tourism can destroy or marginalise habitats for marine mammals and their prey,” such as through increased, unregulated vessel activity, inadequate wastewater treatment and increased fishing, Ward said.

In the biologist’s opinion, a commitment from the private sector and regional tourism institutions to abide by conservation programs would be essential for promoting better practices and research about the biology of these species.

With the expansion of the Caribbean tourism industry, there is an increase of human interaction with dolphins, says Courtney Vail, representative for North America and the Caribbean of the non-governmental, London-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

“Fewer than five to 10 percent of zoos and aquaria are involved in substantial conservation programs. The amount spent on these programs is a mere fraction of the income generated by these facilities,” said Vail in an interview.

Vail questions the presumed educational benefits of the simple exhibition or interaction with dolphins: “To our knowledge, marine parks and aquaria have never performed an objective evaluation of the impact and effectiveness of their programs.”

“Scientific evidence indicates that cetaceans in captivity suffer extreme mental and physical stress, which is revealed in aggression between themselves and towards humans, boredom, and a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than in the wild,” said the activist.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service, and IFEJ – the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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