27 March 2008

Dolphins in a bottle

Giovanni Bearzi and other four researchers from the Tethys Research Institute recently published a paper reporting the work done in the Gulf of Amvrakikos during 2002-2005, resulting in the individual identification of 148 bottlenose dolphins.

This work shows that dolphin density and levels of site fidelity are high, and this was related primarily to prey availability, particularly of epipelagic schooling fish.

The importance of this semi-closed basin for bottlenose dolphins and other threatened species such as marine turtles and endangered birds supports the adoption of measures aimed to conserve its valuable ecosystems and raise the naturalistic profile of the area, while promoting environment-conscious development.

Paraphrasing the famous song by The Police, Dolphins in a Bottle sends a S.O.S. to the world to protect these unique animals and their environment, and we hope that someone gets it :-)

Silvia Bonizzoni

Bearzi G, Agazzi S., Bonizzoni S., Costa M., Azzellino A. 2008. Dolphins in a bottle: abundance, residency patterns and conservation of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the semi-closed eutrophic Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18(2):130-146. (502 Kb)

23 March 2008

Hector dolphins and bycatch

Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins are found only in New Zealand waters and their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years. Hector dolphins have dropped from an estimated population of 26,000 in the 1970s to under 7,000 today.

The situation for the Maui's dolphin, a subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin classified as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, is even worse: 
90% of these animals have died in fishing nets and the latest survey indicated a population of only 111.

Most of the bycatch occurs in gill and trawl nets. These fishing methods have pushed the two dolphin populations to the brink of extinction. Chris Howe, executive director of WWF's New Zealand branch, said that current fishing controls are failing to protect endangered dolphins. "All fishing with set nets and trawl nets should be banned throughout the range of Hector's and Maui's dolphins," Howe said. "That's the only way to ensure a slow-breeding, rare species can recover."

New Zealand is now being urged by conservationists to do more to protect these animals. They claim that only complete protection against fishing-related mortality will save these dolphins from extinction. A decision on the level of protection for Hector's and Maui's dolphins is currently under review by the New Zealand government.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Image: WWF New Zealand

For more information:
www.telegraph.co.uk (but please note that dolphins in the photo are common dolphins, not Mauis' dolphins)

20 March 2008

Global MPA database

MPA Global Database is a project that aims to create a database on the existing Marine Protected Areas, worldwide.

Based largely on information in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), the project has two main goals: to develop a more robust global MPA baseline than currently exists, and to develop alternative scenarios of global MPA networks using spatial modelling techniques.

MPA Global Database contains a great variety of information such as: names of MPAs for each country, area covered and year of designation, mean area of MPAs, percentage of MPAs located in a specific latitude etc.

This database shows that 4435 MPAs exist worldwide and they cover an area of 2.35 million km2. These numbers sound misleadinly big, but the fact is: only 0.65% of the world oceans is covered by MPAs!

Even more impressive is the estimate of global no-take areas (areas where fishing is banned). The percentage of world oceans subject to this specific regulation is only 0.08% !

This database is a new tool for the marine conservation and shows how much still needs to be done to protect marine biodiversity.

Silvia Bonizzoni

For more information:

19 March 2008

French driftnets killed by the European Court of Justice

Oceana, an international organization that works to protect and recover the oceans in the world, has announced that the European Court of Justice has refused to grant France exemption from the prohibition of the use of driftnets in the Mediterranean.

Driftnets used to catch bluefin tuna and swordfish were outlawed in the European Union from 2002 because they constitute a threat to the conservation of cetaceans, sea turtles and sharks. However, years after the ban entered into force, France and Italy have continued using driftnets. While operations in Italy have been downright illegal, the French fleet had taken advantage of legal loopholes to continue carrying out its activities, with full support from its government. French driftnets have caused significant mortality to striped dolphins in the waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean cetaceans.

The European Court of Justice ruled that the French driftnet fleet should not have a temporary exemption from the ban as requested by its government. As such, France cannot offer the driftnet fleet its protection in 2008. Any fishing vessel using this gear to catch bluefin tuna must be sanctioned by French authorities.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

For more information:
Oceana's press release, 17 March 2008

Bycaught dolphins on British coasts

A scaring number of dolphins and porpoises are washing up dead on British coasts.

Since the beginning of the year, 29 animals have been found on the beaches of south-west England. Experts suspect that most have drowned after being caught up in fishing nets.

Some dolphins have their tails or beaks amputated probably due to a useless attempt to free them from the nets, in other individuals bellies have been sliced open after death to try to make them sink.

Mark Simmonds, science director at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: "It is a horrid way for these dolphins to die and you can see that when they come ashore. Fishermen are getting more adept at hiding the evidence and what we see on land is only a proportion of the problem."

On the other hand, Andy Wheeler, from the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation, said: "Every reasonable effort is made by fishermen to avoid bycatch of dolphins. The jury is still out on whether the level of bycatch is a threat to the population."

Considering that the fishing effort is increasing worldwide, it’s time to increase also our effort to eliminate bycaught animals, whether cetaceans, birds, marine turtles, sharks or others.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Photo: WDCS

For more information:

18 March 2008

Salmon stocks are collapsing

After cod and tuna, one more fish stock is in trouble.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council has warned that, from northern Oregon to the Mexican border, the entire American west coast salmon season may have to be halted due to the collapse of crucial stocks in California’s major watershed.

Counts of young salmons, whose numbers have decreased sharply for two years, were the first major indication of the problem. The number of fish that survive more than a year in the ocean, or jacks, is a marker for the abundance of full-grown salmon the next year. Experts said that the 2007 count of the fall Chinook jacks from the Sacramento River was less than 6 percent of the long-term average.

The words from Robert Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland (Oregon), are less then encouraging: “The Central Valley fall Chinook salmon are in the worst condition since records began to be kept -- this is the largest collapse of salmon stocks in 40 years.” The problem is so serious that even the commercial fishermen understand that for this year there is no point lobbying for a higher quota, or any quota at all.

A number of possible reasons were called to explain the situation. Changes in the ocean currents, pollution, dams, water diversions, overfishing, habitat loss and changes in hatchery operations are some of the potential causative factors.

Silvia Bonizzoni

(Drawing by Massimo Demma)

For more information:

12 March 2008

Crazy race for the last Mediterranean tuna

A new WWF report, 126 pages long, provides the first real estimate of the actual catch capability of the Mediterranean purse seine fleet targeting bluefin tuna.

The results are discouraging: few tuna stocks left are driven by unregulated and unsustainable fisheries to a tragic end point.

Without considering the potential catch from other fleets, such as pelagic trawlers, longliners etc., the Mediterranean purse seine fleet has a calculated yearly catch potential of 54,783 metric tonnes. This amount is twice the fishing capacity of current quotas and more than 3.5 times the catch levels recommended by scientists to avoid stock collapse.

Since 1997 there has been a large expansion of the Mediterranean purse seine fleet. In the coastal waters of western Greece, the Tethys Research Institute registered a steady decline in the encounter rate of top predators including common dolphins and tuna (see paper about the decline of marine megafauna and the video Disappearing Dolphins).

How could we ever get to this point? Systematic upward adjustment of quotas, under-reporting of catches, uncontrolled increase in fishing capacity, illegal fishing, ever-increasing market demand ever-expanding fleet size and efficiency... these are some ingredients of the foolish management that brought the tuna stocks to nearly collapse.

Sergi Tudela, Head of Fisheries at WWF Mediterranean, has a clear view of the situation: “The fishery is unsustainable in every way – economically, socially, and ecologically. The time to act is now – while there are still bluefin tuna to save in the Mediterranean”.

Silvia Bonizzoni

For more information
To download the report

10 March 2008

Ocean deserts

The world oceans are deeply affected by human activities, from pollution to resource overexploitation, but now there is a new problem.

The least biologically productive areas of the oceans are expanding much faster than predicted. This is the result of a new study conducted by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Hawaii.

The evidence of this expansion comes from data collected by a visual satellite sensor that reads reflective colour to measure the density of chlorophyll in phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms that are the base of the marine food web. Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are characterized by huge 'black' spots, which indicate zones of very low productivity. These zones, likened to deserts, now cover an estimated 51 million square kilometres in the two oceans and are replacing very fast adjacent prolific areas.

This change in ocean biology, probably linked to the warming of sea surface waters, can have deep consequences to all marine ecosystems. It may negatively affect all the marine food web from plankton to fishes, turtle and cetaceans.

Silvia Bonizzoni

(The image by NOAA shows black areas considered the least biologically productive)

For more information:

09 March 2008

Individual recognition of dolphins reported by Pliny the Elder 1931 years ago

Cetacean research pioneers David and Melba Caldwell wrote in their 1972 book “The world of the bottlenosed dolphin” that the earliest example of the practice of prolonged observation of cetaceans based on the recognition of individuals over extended time was that of Pelorus Jack - a Risso’s dolphin observed between 1888 and 1912 swimming near ships crossing Cook Strait, between the northern and southern portions of New Zealand.

Recently my attention was pointed to a writing by Pliny the Elder which moves back the clock of such scientific method by 1,811 years!

In the 9th book of his Naturalis Historia, published in 77 A.D., the ancient naturalist wrote about dolphins: "They grow fast, and it is believed that they reach their maximum size at 10 years of age. They can reach the age of 30, as discovered through the experimental cutting of nicks on their tails" (Adolescunt celeriter, X annis putantur ad summam magnitudinem pervenire. Vivunt et tricenis, quod cognitum praecisa cauda in experimentum).

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

02 March 2008

Using satellite images to protect the Ocean

Not everyone knows that satellite images can be used to support marine conservation.

The concept is simple. Satellites have global reach and can repeatedly capture images of any area, they can reveal the land/seascape disruption and habitat degradation caused by anthropogenic activities. They can be used to monitor industrial sites, logging operations, environmentally sensitive areas, urban sprawl, shipping traffic, fisheries, and resource-management practices, no matter where in the world they occur.

Also, they can be used to monitor fishing activities. Daniel Pauly, a world-renowned fisheries scientist, is the pioneer of this innovative idea. Pauly was inspired by a satellite image of a fleet of trawlers at work in the ocean. Looking at the image, he realized that trawlers could be seen so clearly that it would in theory be possible to monitor fishing from satellites and assess their impact. With historical and global archives, it is also possible to compare images to show changes over time. This kind of data could lead to restrictions on industrial fishing methods.

In addition to being a source of scientific data to document environmental change, satellite images may also represent a powerful communication tool. Using satellite photographs, we can document and communicate the impact of anthropogenic activities and promote a sustainable use of resources.

Silvia Bonizzoni

(The satellite photo shows mud trails made by shrimp trawlers off the mouth of the Yangtze River www.digitalglobe.com)
For more information: