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How insight into southern Africa’s dolphins is being deepened

Some dolphins live close to the shore, where they regularly encounter humans. This is affecting their numbers. Simon Elwen

South Africa has a wide range of oceanographic conditions around the coast. As a result, there is a diversity of cetacean species. These are large-bodied, fast-moving top predators like dolphins and whales. Globally, at least a quarter of these species are listed as endangered. Understanding how these species move and live is crucial to understanding their ecological relationships with the environment.

The E3C – Effect of Climate Change on Cetaceans – project looks at the impact climate change has on these species. The Conversation Africa’s energy and environment editor Ozayr Patel spoke to Dr Simon Elwen, a researcher with South Africa’s University of Pretoria working on the project.

Globally, at least a quarter of whale and dolphin species have been listed as endangered. What are the main reasons?

Many of the large whale species and populations that were subjected to commercial whaling have been very slow to recover, notably the Antarctic blue whale and the North Atlantic right whale. But the majority of large whale populations have been increasing slowly over the past few decades. Species are gradually leaving the threatened lists, thanks to wide-ranging international conservation efforts. The most important of these is the end of whaling, showing that stopping directed take – in other words “not killing animals” – is one of the most effective conservation strategies.

But the bad news is that many dolphin and porpoise populations are the ones now facing extirpation. The Maui’s dolphin of New Zealand and the vaquita of the gulf of California are both critically endangered. The baiji, the Chinese river dolphin, has already been declared extinct due almost entirely to habitat loss in the Yangtze River in China.

What is the state of dolphin species around Africa’s coasts? What threats do they face?

In southern Africa most dolphin populations are thought to be fairly healthy. There are five species that are regularly seen from shore, including the Heaviside’s and dusky dolphin on the west coast and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose and Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, which are found to the east of Cape Point in Cape Town. There are several other species that inhabit the shelf and offshore waters, with the common dolphin being one of the few of these regularly seen close to shore, especially along the south-eastern part of the continent. The only species that is currently thought to be of concern is the humpback dolphin, Sousa plumbea.

The humpback dolphin lives along the southern Cape coast and off northern KwaZulu-Natal province. This entire population in South Africa likely numbers less than 1,000 individuals and lives extremely close to shore, where it regularly encounters humans. This results in things like boat traffic, pollution, habitat loss and prey depletion having an impact on these species.

Why are dolphins, in particular, important in the ocean’s ecosystem?

Dolphins and whales are large, highly mobile top predators. They can eat a lot of food and respond quickly to changes in the environment by moving large distances, depending on the species. As large predators, they can have a top-down role in ecosystems, suppressing the numbers of prey animals. What this means is that sometimes species near the bottom of the food chain, like sardine or anchovy, can increase when medium-level predators are removed by top predators such as seals, sharks and dolphins, a result shown in a number of ecosystems globally.

Dolphins and whales are known to be top predators. Simon Elwen

What is unique about the South African coast that makes it so diverse?

South Africa’s marine life at all trophic levels is remarkably diverse, thanks largely to the diversity of habitats available around the coast. It ranges from tropical at the Mozambique border, to temperate along the south coast and cool-temperate along the west coast.

From a mammal point of view, the cold waters of the Benguela ecosystem along the west coast provide a link to sub-Antarctic environments, so some species that are usually only found south of 40 degrees of latitude also occur in the Benguela, like southern right whale dolphins and pygmy right whales.

Commercial fishing practices, gill nets and pollution are viewed as the most serious challenge to dolphins. Are these serious problems in African and South African waters?

To the best of my knowledge, bycatch – the unintentional catching of a species – is thankfully not a major problem in South Africa. There is no gill netting in South Africa. Coastal net fisheries are scarce and most of the large-scale commercial fishing activities in South Africa occur in deeper waters than most of our coastal dolphin species occur.

But entanglement in lobster and octopus trap lines is an increasing concern for large whales in coastal waters. Recent data on organic pollutants in dolphins from the east coast suggests that DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls are still a concern, especially for coastal dolphin species like the humpback and bottlenose.

What effect is climate change having on dolphins?

Essentially, assuming no other changes in the ecosystem – which is somewhat naive – we expect a general pole-ward shift in the distribution ranges of most cetacean species. This isn’t likely to be a major problem for animals that move large distances in the relatively uniform and connected environment of the open ocean. But it will potentially have major impacts on some coastal species, especially those that live in habitats that are “dead ends” in this respect (like the southern coast of Africa).

Along the South African coast, several dolphin species live in the Benguela, which is currently thought to be cooling – against the general trend of climate change – due to increased winds and upwelling of cold water. Right now we don’t really know how adaptable these animals are to massive changes in temperature in either direction, should they occur.

What other major conservation tactics are used to help dolphins survive and thrive?

1) Don’t kill them! In any form, including entanglement or bycatch, hunting or pollutants.

2) Stop polluting the oceans – including noise, plastics and organic pollutants.

3) Stop harassing them – obey the laws and use responsible tour operators.

4) Don’t steal their food – eat sustainably caught fish

You have started a project involving citizen scientists. Why have you taken this route?

Citizen science projects have been extremely successful both locally and internationally. Modern communication methods like mobile phones and the internet allow scientists to rapidly communicate with thousands of interested and knowledgeable observers to increase the number of eyes and ears available to collect data. We can’t be everywhere, and our boat surveys and acoustic methods are limited in the amount of area or time they can cover, so we are trying to take advantage of the large number of keen whale and dolphin watchers around our Cape Town’s coasts to report sightings to us.

Remarkably, the area around Cape Town itself has been quite poorly studied by cetacean scientists in the past. So citizen science offers us a potentially powerful route to massively increase the number of data points of dolphin and whale sightings around the area.

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