Stop smiling snubfin dolphins — you're going extinct

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Guy Lane sends out a wake-up call to save the snubnosed dolphins, an elusive but delightful member of the dolphin family.

Snubnose dolphin (copyright Dr Isabel Beasley)

AN OLD Chinese proverb says:
“Go to bed with coat hanger in mouth and wake up with big smile in the morning.”

Such would be good advice for the coastal dolphins of northern Australia because, despite a reputation for grinning without reason, they are having a hard time raising a smile these days.

This is because the coastal dolphins of northern Australia are being relentlessly crushed by the cogs of industry. From the coal and shale plants of the Fitzroy to the gas fields of the North West, dolphins are the collateral damage in the nation’s unquenchable lust for mineral wealth. And they are going extinct as a result.

At stake is the survival of three species of dolphins. These include the quintessential show-pony of the sea, the inshore bottlenose dolphin (think Flipper); the larger, frumpy-looking Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (think Flipper crossed with Quasimodo); and the cute but shy Australian snubfin dolphin (also known as the snubnose dolphin). These are the ‘coastal dolphins’ of Northern Australia, with a range that extends anticlockwise from Gladstone to Broome.

Of the three coastal dolphins, this article will focus on the snubfin dolphin for a number of reasons.

First, the snubfin is the only endemic dolphin, which is to say it lives nowhere in the world other than Australia. It is also the most vulnerable to imminent extinction — there could be as few as 1,000 in existence on the whole planet.

The snubfin is also the least known — largely because it doesn’t cavort around boats like its vain counterparts. Also, the cute little snubfin benefits from cuddly animal syndrome; whereas the Indo-Pacific humpback is not so easy on the eye and I suspect that the public have long succumbed to ‘bottlenose fatigue’. And finally, if ever the snubfin is protected, its mates will be sharing the safe waters.

The snubfin dolphin has long been known in northern Australian waters. However, until recently it was thought to be the Irrawaddy dolphin. Irrawaddy dolphins, named after the famous river in Myanmar, were once abundant in southeast Asia waters, but are now shuffling silently towards extinction — like most coastal dolphins around the world. In 2005, however, Australian scientists discovered that the little, shy, dolphins of Australia’s tropical north were not naturalized Asians at all, but were instead a distinct species.

Yet, despite being cute, endemic and recently discovered, snubfins are one the slippery slope to extinction, with ‘E’ day – the day they are official declared extinct – being perhaps just a few decades away. (Incidentally, ‘E’ day for the Yangzte River Dolphin in China was August 2007). Industrial development, accidental entanglement in fishing gear and shark nets, boating accidents, pollution, and coastal development are hammering nails into the snubfin coffin and for the most part this is happening without leaving an noticeable trail.

Part of the problem facing the snubfin is that they have fallen through the cracks in the species conservation safety net. In order to get a coherent Recovery Plan in place for a threatened species, it must be proven that ‘populations’ are vulnerable and on their way to extinction. However, because so little is known about the snubfin, no one can say for sure how stuffed they really are.

This is Pythonesque: 'bring out your dead!". "I don’t want to go on the cart!" screams the little dolphin.

As if all that is not bad enough, the snubfin’s basic biology works against them. For a start, they like to hang around river mouths, which they now share with tinnies, bulk carriers, dredges, fishing nets and the like.

They are also very parochial, or philopatric, to use the proper word, which means that they remain in the place where they were born. So if you annihilate the snubfin population from Ellis Bay, Cairns, for instance (which has already happened, thanks to Queensland Government shark netting program) they will not rapidly repopulate from neighboring areas.

Furthermore, like the pesky pandas that will not root on cue, the snubfins have a slow reproductive rate; so the death of a few individuals above the natural mortality rate can signal a long downward spiral for the local population to extinction.

Snubfins also have very specific diets and habitat requirements.

A rational appraisal of the available information suggests that brand snubfin will not be on the shelves for long.

This is not for the lack of effort of some; there are a few groups putting their shoulder to the wheel. WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the environmental group with the panda logo, is one organization that is leading the charge to get the plight of the snubfin dolphin recognized and appropriate management plans and laws put in place to protect it. They even roped in a big bank, ING Direct, to give a helping hand.

A glossy WWF report funded by the bank found that two thirds of the snubfins in Roebuck Bay, Broome, WA, had been injured by boats or fishing gear. With 200 or so individuals, Roebuck Bay is the global hotspot for snubfins.

WWF also helped raise a $5,000 reward for information leading to responsible parties who gutted two snubfin dolphins and tied their carcasses to a mangrove tree in Toolakea Creek, north of Townsville, in 2011. Of note, the people responsible for the dolphin killing, otherwise known ‘delphicide’, were probably a local Dad and Dave in a tinnie who accidentally caught the two snubfins in a barramundi net. They have not been caught and the reward remains unclaimed. The upshot of this particular misadventure is that the population of snubfins in Townsville waters went from around 67 to 65. Did the State Government send a team of forensics experts to get evidence to find the killers? No, the two dolphins were buried in the dunes and little more was said of it. Hey, if you think Dad and Dave are bad, imagine what would happen if a supertrawler were ever permitted to fish in snubfin territory.

By this stage, the reader must be reeling in anxiety. Surely Australia, one of the most advance countries in the world with respect to environmental management, would not let a dolphin species go extinct. After all, is not our Commonwealth Government an ardent supporter of the Sea Shepherd, sending naval patrols to assist the black boats in keeping the Japanese whalers out of the Southern Ocean? Our governments are speeding to the rescue, right?

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth is taking its time getting the snubfin into surgery and the State governments are still sticking in the knife by approving toxic industrial projects in snubfin territory.

According to recently released scientific study with a title too unwieldy to print here, the Fitzroy River snubfin population (near Gladstone, Central Queensland) is composed of about than 100 individuals — for now. The snubfin territory has a core range of less than 300 km2 and industrial development (you guessed it, a coal terminal) is planned for about 25 per cent of the core area.

Red dots represent Snubfin dolphin sightings.  Red line  is the outside of the core area.  The green lines are planned industrial development
Red dots represent snubfin dolphin sightings.
Red line is the outside of the core area.
The green lines are planned industrial development

Think like an industrialist and you can imagine: dredging, big ships, lots of machinery noise, 24 hour per day operations, bright lights and fast cat ferries.Then think like a dolphin that is shy, doesn’t like being around ships, uses low frequency sound to find its prey, doesn’t have anywhere else to go, and reproduces slowly – assuming it is ever in the mood for sex with all that racket going on – then you start to get an idea of the mess the snubfins are in. And what is happening to the Gladstone snubfins is happening to every other local sub-population of snubfins in Northern Australia to one degree or another. If it’s not a coal terminal, it’s some muppet with a gill net, a shipping harbor or a swarm of tinnies.

A dolphin’s lucid dream might be that the Commonwealth, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australian governments and the industrialists of northern Australia agree to do whatever is needed (repeat, whatever) to ensure that the snubfins and their other dolphin mates are adequately protected. However, events to date suggest that is unlikely.

To this end, the author of this article and associates have put our hand to a new ‘save the dolphin’ project specific to the snubfin — an animal that has been right-royally-snubbed and is on the verge of being snubbed out forever. We are pleased to introduce Don't Snub Me (dontsnubme.org).

Don’t Snub Me’s first mission is to help get the snubfin listed as a threatened species under the Commonwealth Government’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) which will lead to the development of a Recovery Plan.

The main factor preventing the snubfin’s listing is a lack of information on broad-scale distribution and relative abundance along the northern Great Barrier Reef and Gulf of Carpentaria.

So, Don’t Snub Me’s priority mission is to help get this field research funded. To this end, we are asking the public to get involved. Which means learn about the issues, talk about it, put your hand in your pocket if you can, get social media on us and get ready for a fight.

A fight. Oh yes! Given that snubfin dolphins, shipping harbors, coal terminals and gas fields all prefer the same real estate, I portend that the snubfin’s listing will be fraught with Star Wars-like politics.

The Galactic Empire’s role will be played by governments and the industrialists, desperately trying to prevent the dolphin getting any legal protection lest it interfere with a fossil fuel extraction project. Representing the Rebel Alliance will be the well meaning public of Australia. (The snubfin actually looks a bit like Yoda, don’t you think?)

Watch this space for an epic battle between those who would have our very own dolphin species protected and the Dark Side — who probably wish it were already extinct. This will be a bloody, drawn out fight with no assurance of victory; if the dark side can push out the listing for a decade or more, they will probably have already won.

And what should the dolphins do while all the human politics plays out? The best advice for the coastal dolphins of Northern Australia is to sit tight and try not to go extinct. And until the snubfin is listed and a comprehensive recovery plan is in place, they are advised to keep a coat hanger by their bedside.

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