Marine mammals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, August/September 1996:

Small whales
The Sacramento Bee warned in
June that the vaquita whale is “on the verge
of extinction, a victim of commercial gill net
fishing” in the Sea of Cortez, and that the
reserve set up to protect the vaquita may be “a
sanctuary in name only.” The vaquita is a
small toothed whale, a class not protected by
the International Whaling Commission.
Romanian Institute for Marine
Research scientist Alexandru Bologna says
only 10,000 dolphins remain in the heavily
polluted Black Sea, down from 70,000 in
1970, and one million in 1950, when the former
Communist regime began “economic capitalization
of dolphins,” i.e. slaughter.

Bologna’s work to save the Black Sea dolphin
is backed by the Mediterranean Sea Scientific
Exploration Group, the World Bank, and the
United Nations Development Program.
Liu Fengzhen, deputy director of
the Tian’ezhou Nature Reserve on the
Yangtse River in central Hubei province,
China, said June 5 that the reserve will expand
its target population of endangered river dolphins
from thirty to 50. There may be fewer
than 100 Chinese river dolphins left in total,
down from 300 a decade ago, and captive
breeding at the two official river dolphin
reserves has been unsuccessful, partly due to
lack of females. The U.S. Export-Import Bank
on May 30 said it would not help finance the
proposed Three Gorges dam, which might
harm the dolphins’ habitat.
Researcher Lindsay Porter says
genetic testing shows the 80 to 200 remaining
Hong Kong white dolphins have avoided
inbreeding, despite their scarcity, but while
they seem to be a distinct group, they are evidently
of the same species as other sousa dolphins
found off Thailand, Vietnam, China,
Australia, and Africa. Two of the dolphins
have been found dead so far this year, bringing
the two-year toll to 21. According to the
Chinese government news service, “Plans for
a 1,200-hectare marine park for the dolphins
near Sha Cau are under public consultation.”
Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule in 1997.
New Zealand conservation minister
Simon Upton announced June 1 that the
Hector’s dolphin breeding area in Akaroa
Harbor will remain a sanctuary, barring net
fishing during the summer months––but rejected
requests from the Forest and Bird Society
and World Wildlife Fund that the sanctuary be
extended and the no-nets rule be enforced all
year. The sanctuary was designated in 1988.
About 3,000 to 4,000 Hector’s dolphins inhabit
New Zealand’s inshore waters.

Right whales
The financially troubled International
Wildlife Coalition has reportedly
halved its funding of Jose Truda Palazzo Jr.’s
right whale protection work in Brazil. Palazzo
rediscovered right whales off the island of Sao
Francisco do Sul in September 1982, nine
years after the last Brazilian whaling station
closed because the whales were considered
extinct. Palazzo, then an 18-year-old student,
was initially sponsored by then-vice commander
of Brazilian armed forces Admiral Ibsen
Camara, said to have been the only outspoken
critic of whaling within the junta that ruled
Brazil 1964-1985. The World Wildlife Fund
backed Truda in a 1986 public education
effort, which brought a ban on whaling, but
the IWC has been his main sponsor since.
The funding loss may indefinitely delay plans
to track the right whales by radio collar. “It’s
futile to protect them here and leave then
exposed in other areas,” Palazzo said. “We
need to discover their migration paths to keep
whalers away from them on the high seas.”
Killing right whales is banned by the
International Whaling Commission, but pirate
whalers may still kill them on the quiet.
To avoid disturbing an earlyarriving
mother-and-calf pair of right
whales, the Canadian Armed Forces on June
22 withdrew six ships from the Bay of Fundy,
forcing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
to restructure a 30-ship training exercise.
Right whales weren’t expected to enter the bay
for at least another six weeks. About 300
northern right whales are believed to survive in
the North Atlantic, some of whom feed in the
Bay of Fundy toward the end of each summer.
An expansion of the Great
Australian Bight whale sanctuary announced
in May by South Australian premier Dean
Brown was to take effect for six months beginning
July 1. The sanctuary, also designed to
protect sea lions, will shrink after the southern
right whale mating and breeding season, to
accommodate fishing and mining.

Sea otters
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
review of the status of the California sea otter
recommended on July 14 that the otters should
be removed from the endangered species list
when their numbers grow to an average of
2,650 over three years. This year’s count came
to 2,278, down from the 2,377 counted iu
1995, although the USFWS estimates the population
is growing at 5% to 7% per year. The
sea otters would be protected again if the population
dropped to 1,850 over three years.

The epidemic that killed least 158
of a record 304 Florida manatees found dead
during the first half of 1996 was caused by
brevetoxin, a lethal byproduct of “red tide”
phytoplankton, Thierry Work of the National
Biological Service said July 2. The most
recent manatee count, in February, found
2,639 in Florida waters. The highest previous
death toll––for a full year––was 206, in 1990.
A similar “red tide” toxin apparently killed at
least five of the eight bottlenose dolphins
found dead on Bay County beaches in late
June. The Lowry Park Zoo Manatee Hospital,
in Tampa, on June 18 released two of the few
survivors, captured on April 28 and May 3,
respectively, with symptoms including paralysis,
respiratory trouble, and muscle spasms.
Amid concern that the epidemic might not be
over, Lee County and Florida Power and
Light announced the July 27 dedication of a
16-acre manatee viewing park beside the discharge
canal at a power plant north of Fort
Myers––one of the sirenians’ favorite winter
haunts. The manatees enter the canal in early
December, staying until warm weather.
The dugong count along Australia’s
Great Barrier Reef has reportedly
dropped by 50 to 80% since 1988. A recent
conference on dugong protection reported that
the major threats to the species include entrapment
in fishing nets, poaching, and damage to
seagrass grazing meadows by development.
The National Biological Service
reported on June 18 that Chessie the manatee
is heading north again. Named for a 1994 visit
to Chesapeake Bay, Chessie swam to Rhode
Island last summer––the farthest north a
Florida manatee has ever been tracked by radio
transmitter, close enough to the known range
of a northern manatee described and presumably
hunted to extinction by early European
visitors that experts are wondering if the vanished
northern population may have been
migratory members of the southern population.
Officially protected since 1967, the
Amazon freshwater manatee is still often
poached and is struggling for survival, reports
Vera da Silva, head of the Aquatic Mammals
Laboratory at the National Institute of Amazon
Research in Manaus, Brazil. The lab keeps up
to 20 orphaned manatees at a time, hoping to
place them with fish farms and water quality
maintenance programs, where their appetite
for up to 110 pounds of water plants per day
may make them economically valuable.

Former Conservative defence minister
Alan Clark reportedly heads an effort to
block a British attempt to repeal Trades
Description 1980, the regulation which forbids
the import of seal hides to Britain.
According to James Landale of the L o n d o n
T i m e s, “Ministers hope to push the move
through just before the summer recess, when
few Members of Parliament are in Westminster.
Order 1980 prompted a huge drop in seal
skin imports amid public distaste at TV pictures
of seal cubs being clubbed to death in
Canada. A MORI poll this weekend found
that 92% of Britons support retaining the law.”
Rangers at Channel Islands
National Park, California, have issued
repeated appeals for information that will
enable them to find and kill the so-called
Marauder of San Miguel Island, an 1,600-
pound fluke hybrid of a Stellar sea lion with a
California sea lion. Attracted to California sea
lion females, who weigh under 250 pounds,
the apparently sterile Marauder crushed 40-50
of them to death in failed mating attempts
between 1991 and 1995, when he was finally
seen in the act. He hasn’t appeared so far this
year, however, and may already be dead.
An estimated 300 juvenile male sea
lions occupied the pier at the Monterey Coast
Guard Station from late May into midsummer,
paralleling a 1991 invasion of Fishermen’s
Wharf in San Francisco. The reason for such
gatherings is unknown.
The National Marine Fisheries
S e r v i c e announced on June 20 that it will
delay for one year a planned month-long
investigation of the decline of North Pacific
Steller sea lions, due to the June 5 wreck of
The Provider, a rented research vessel, which
is now under repair at Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Now officially “threatened,” Steller sea lions
have been proposed for “endangered” status.

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