Marine mammal experts gather to identify solutions to save threatened dolphins and porpoises

December 13, 2018, Zoological Society of San Diego

Thirty-seven experts from 14 countries are gathering at the Cistercian Monastery in Heilsbronn—Nuremberg from December 14 to 18 to discuss conservation options for coastal and riverine species of dolphins that are experiencing significant population declines and could be facing extinction in the foreseeable future. The group of scientists, conservationists, veterinarians and managers will be discussing whether, and how, in-situ conservation (conservation in natural habitats) recovery plans for small cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) at risk of extinction, could be enhanced with ex-situ conservation (conservation outside of natural habitats) options. "In today's world we are facing what many experts are calling an extinction crisis." said Douglas DeMaster, member of the workshop steering committee and

Science and Research Director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. "Many species of dolphins and porpoises found in rivers and coastal waters of South America, Africa and Asia are facing dire threats to their survival and more tools need to be developed to help ensure their continued existence. This may need to include hands-on protection and management in semi-natural reserves, sanctuaries or zoos and aquariums."

In-situ conservation is defined as the conservation of species in their and is considered the most appropriate way of conserving biodiversity.

Ex-situ conservation is the preservation of components of biological diversity outside their natural habitats. This involves conservation of genetic resources and draws on a diverse body of techniques and facilities. Some of these include establishing gene banks, e.g. reproductive material such as sperm and ova banks; as well as collecting living animals for maintaining within protected semi-natural reserves or sanctuaries, zoos and aquaria, for breeding and reintroduction to the wild. Ex-situ conservation measures must be complementary to in-situ methods as they provide an "insurance policy" against extinction.

The goal of the is to create a step-wise approach for developing recovery plans that could, if needed, provide assurance populations in ex-situ settings, including zoos, aquariums and semi-natural reserves or sanctuaries. "Unfortunately, effective conservation within much of these species' wild habitat has not been working because the dolphins and porpoises are threatened by activities that are considered vital to human livelihoods, with no alternatives that are not economically or socially costly." Said Barbara Taylor Ph.D., a member of the workshop steering committee and genetics program leader for US National Marine Fisheries. "Changing is very difficult and it appears that such changes require such a long period of time that many species of dolphins and porpoises will go extinct prior to the implementation of adequate responses by societies. Consequently, marine resource managers need more tools to consider, perhaps including ex-situ options, to bridge this time gap and prevent extinction of endangered and critically endangered small cetaceans in the near future." Workshop organizers have taken care to have a range of viewpoints represented to ensure candid open discussions about the pluses and minuses of ex-situ options as tools for helping conserve dolphins and porpoises.

"This Workshop represents a unique opportunity for us as Zoo Nuremberg and also for our NGO Yaqu Pacha because both are committed seriously to the conservation of aquatic mammals for more than two decades. It is certainly the first time that In Situ and Ex Situ conservation initiatives are linked for the benefit of cetacean species survival" said Dr. Lorenzo von Fersen, workshop host and director, YAQU PACHA e.V. The workshop will share lessons learned from the efforts to use ex-situ management to save the Yangtze river dolphin "baiji", Yangtze finless porpoise and Mexico's vaquita porpoise. It will also examine the conservation status of seven other or populations and discuss tools available to prevent their extinction, including ex-situ options.

These seven species, that have been assessed as vulnerable (VU), endangered (EN) and critically endangered (CR) by cetacean specialists with the IUCN, are:

  • South Asian river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) - EN
  • Amazon River dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) - EN
  • Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) - EN
  • Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis) - EN
  • Franciscana (Pontoporia blainvillei) - VU
  • Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii) - CR
  • Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) - EN

Workshop participants will develop a plan for next steps, identifying the critical data gaps to assess the feasibility of ex-situ conservation options; the species that are most likely to benefit from ex-situ conservation; when ex-situ actions for those species should begin; and, finally, a logical decision-making matrix that can be applied to evaluate the appropriateness of ex-situ options as tools to support in-situ efforts for those species. Although attendance at the workshop is limited to invited guests and participants, organizers will share information regarding next steps that are identified and the report of the workshop will be publicly available.

Workshop participants represent varied interests and experience including; IUCN-SSC Cetacean Specialist Group members, scientists working with the focal species in their natural habitat, international zoological associations including WAZA, AZA and EAZA, population biologists with the IUCN/CPSG, and marine mammal veterinarians with wide-ranging experience working with cetaceans in zoo/aquarium settings and their natural environment. The workshop is being hosted by Zoo Nuremberg, the National Marine Mammal Foundation (San Diego) and YAQU PACHA e.V. - Organization for the Conservation of South American Aquatic Mammals. Ocean Park Corporation (Hong Kong), YAQU PACHA and Zoo Nuremberg have provided funding for the realization of the WS, and members of the IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group will contribute with scientific and technical support.

Explore further: West African dolphin now listed as one of Africa's rarest mammals

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