Snubfin dolphins face extinction

By Angela Case | June 8, 2011

Without immediate protection, Australia’s only endemic dolphin could disappear within three generations.

A NEW STUDY BY conservation organisation World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found Australia’s only endemic dolphin, the snubfin, could disappear within three generations, or about 30 years.

Estimates suggest less than 1000 of these mammals exist in the wild, concentrated in the waters along Australia’s north coast.

The snubfin is a new addition to the list of known dolphins, first identified as a separate species in 2005. Snubfins are distinguished from their close relatives, Irrawaddy dolphins, by their tri-coloured appearance, rounded forehead, and stubby dorsal fin.

They live in small, isolated groups along Australia’s north coast, from the Kimberley in WA to the Gladstone region of Queensland. They may also occur in the waters around Papua New Guinea.

Because the mammals are shy, do not bow ride, and occur infrequently, not much is known about them.

Snubfin dolphins under extinction threat

Snubfins are estimated to have a lifespan of about 30 years, breeding from age nine and producing one calf every two or three years. According to Lydia Gibson, WWF’s tropical marine species manager, this slow rate of reproduction, combined with the dolphins’ scarcity, makes them susceptible to extinction.

“If you lose just one individual in a population per year due to human activity, it could lead to the extinction of that local population,” she says.

WWF warns human activities could lead to the dolphins’ extinction in the next 30 years.

One of the main threats to snubfins is bycatch, or accidental capture by fishing nets. WWF estimates bycatch has killed hundreds of dolphins. Gillnets in coastal net fisheries are particularly problematic, because they tend to be set in the inshore estuarine habitats snubfins prefer.

Many snubfins have been found with scars resulting from boating accidents, indicating that accidental run-ins with watercraft are probably responsible for some deaths.

The dolphins are also threatened by habitat destruction resulting from increased commercial development along the Australian coast.

WWF pleas for legal protection for snubfin dolphins

Despite the myriad threats against them, snubfin dolphins currently receive virtually no legal protection. WWF is working to have the snubfin recognised as a threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Lydia says this recognition would help grant the species the protection it needs to survive.

“What this translates to in terms of conservation action is ensuring sanctuaries are set aside so the species can exist in areas free from coastal development, fishing gear entanglement, and boat strikes,” she says.

WWF is circulating a petition urging Environment Minister Tony Burke to add the snubfin dolphin to the threatened species list. Click here for more information or to show your support.

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