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Endangered dolphins collide with industrial growth in Taiwan

You may have heard of the Chinese white dolphin, especially due to recent environmental efforts to protect their dwindling numbers. But did you know that the island of Taiwan has its own sub-species of resident white dolphins? Did you know there are less than 100 left? Neither did I.
 
Over the past decade, the number of white dolphins has continued to drop due to over fishing, pollution and loss of habitat resulting from previous land reclamation projects for industrial projects
While looking over worldwide cetacean news, I happened upon a few small stories printed in a Taiwan newspaper following the chronicles of a genetically distinct population of critically endangered white dolphins, also called Sousa Chinesis or Indo-Pacific humpbacks.
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Removal of such shallow waters or intertidal waters reduces the size of their habitat. The removal of wetlands can destroy fish habitats and thereby reduce food availability.

—Peter Ross, chairperson of an advisory committee working to protect the dolphins.

According to reports, these incredibly rare dolphins live only in shallow waters three to five kilometers off the island’s western shore and do not cross the Taiwan Strait to mate or feed with other white dolphins that reside near mainland China’s rivers. Instead, this isolated group lives in two “hot spots” of a relatively small section of Taiwan’s coast and migrate back and forth in small pods throughout the year.

Chinese white dolphin - What’s at stake?
Directly in the center of this migration path lays the proposed sight of Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Company’s new oil refinery that would require reclaiming roughly 4,200 hectares of coastal wetlands and is estimated to produce 12 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

“Removal of such shallow waters or intertidal waters reduces the size of their habitat,” said Peter Ross, chairperson of an advisory committee working to protect the dolphins. “The removal of wetlands can destroy fish habitats and thereby reduce food availability.”

Ross and his team recently submitted a comprehensive report to the government detailing new surveys conducted in part by Taiwan University’s Institute of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Their findings concluded that over the past decade the number of white dolphins has continued to drop due to over fishing, pollution and loss of habitat resulting from previous land reclamation projects for industrial projects. Exact numbers could not be obtained but estimates put the number of extant dolphins at only 60-90.

The paper went on to suggest that all areas of shallow waters used by the dolphins, including channels of migration need to be protected from industrial encroachment and large scale fishing or Taiwan could see that number drop fifty percent by 2025. “For such a small, isolated and threatened population, priority habitat should not be limited to areas of particularly intensive dolphin use or high dolphin density.”

Further exacerbating the problem is the small number of babies females have during their 30-40 year life span. White dolphins don’t reach sexual maturity until around ten years of age and only deliver calves every three to four years.

What’s the solution?
Ross’s group and other conservationists are asking Taiwan to designate a section of western coastal waters—including the two hot spots and the migration corridor between them—as “major wildlife habitat” under the Wildlife Conservation Act. According to the act, the original ecological functions of such habitats should be maintained, while construction and land use should be carried out in the manner that least affects the habitat.

Providing greater protection would not only benefit the environment but the commercial activities that depend on it in other ways, said Ross. “Many examples exist where marine protected areas actually lead to increased fisheries production because fish spawning habitats have been protected.”

One group of local environmentalists, meanwhile, are moving ahead with their own conservation efforts. Last April, Tsai Chia-yang of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union initiated a project to raise money for an environmental fund that intends to purchase the site that Kuokuang wants to reclaim land for development. The Republic of China currently holds the title to that area and is awaiting the results of an environmental impact survey before determining how it will be used.

Under Tsai’s plan, individuals pledge to buy shares based on the cost of one square meter of land—NT$119 (US$3.84). That price is about 15 percent higher than what is being offered by Kuokuang Co.

The first phase of Tsai’s plan was completed in June 2010, at which time 50,000 people had signed up to buy 200 hectares of coastal wetlands. The second phase of the campaign was launched in September 2010 and is aimed at the eventual purchase of another 800 hectares. The first 200 hectares form a coastal strip along which the white dolphins live and the remaining 800 hectares are essential habitat for the fish the dolphins prey on, as well as for native bird species.

So far more than 6,000 people had registered to purchase shares in the second-phase of the conservation project, Tsai said. “We hope we can get a total of more than 200,000 participants by enlisting other environmental groups, academics and religious groups. Accumulating that number of supporters is a way to tell the government how many people are willing to protect the wetland.”

If you would like more information about the conservation efforts or would like to contribute, please visit www.wildatheart.org.tw.

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