Tuesday 04 May 2010

Recently discovered but already in trouble

A meeting of Commonwealth and State Government representatives, scientists and key stakeholders will take place in Townsville this week to discuss how best to protect and conserve the Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni).

Closely related to the Irrawaddy dolphin (O. brevirostris) the snubfin dolphin is relatively new to science, having been first described only five years ago.

The protection and management of any species relies heavily on an understanding of its natural history, population and distribution. Since its discovery the snubfin has been the subject of a number of research programs including one in Roebuck Bay near Broome, Western Australia, coordinated by Dr Deborah Thiele over the past few years.

The snubfin has been found throughout the waters of northern Australia, but individual populations are probably rather small and widely dispersed. It is understood that it might also be found in the waters of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Its preference for shallow coastal waters and estuaries ensures that it comes into contact with human activity. This makes it vulnerable to boat strike, commercial and recreational fishing activities, entanglement in shark nets and the ecological impact of aquaculture and foreshore development.

Populations are believed to be in decline throughout much of the snubfin's range as a result. Due to a paucity of data the snubfin is currently assessed as a 'Near Threatened', although it is expected that recent research and analysis is likely to see it reclassified as Vulnerable or possibly even Endangered.

There is now major concern about the potential impact on snubfin dolphins their habitat from the unprecedented growth in offshore fossil fuel surveys and extraction and the associated onshore infrastructure in northern Queensland and Western Australia. These activities are particularly worrying in light of recent incidents such as the still unfolding oil platform disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

We would be foolish to think for a moment that such things cannot happen here. The 250 tonnes of oil that spilled from the Pacific Adventurer in March last year and washed up on Queensland beaches; the spill from the West Atlas drilling rig off the Kimberly Coast five months later; and the oil that leaked from the Shen Neng 1 coal carrier that ran aground off Gladstone just last month are ample proof that they can.


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