Whales, Dolphins Could Become Extinct ‘Within Our Lifetimes,’ Scientists Warn
More than 350 scientists from 40 countries have signed an open letter warning against “real and imminent extinction risk to whales, dolphins, and porpoises,” and calling for global conservation efforts to save these aquatic mammals.
The letter states that “pollution, over-exploitation, and human domination of major river systems” across the globe, especially fishing activities, can lead to several species of whales, porpoises, and dolphins becoming “extinct within our lifetimes,” denying “future generations the opportunity to experience them.”
“Let this be a historic moment when realizing that whales are in danger sparks a powerful wave of action from everyone: regulators, scientists, politicians, and the public to save our oceans,” Mark Simmonds, the senior marine scientist with Humane Society International who coordinated the letter, told BBC.
At present, of the 90 surviving species of these aquatic mammals, more than half are threatened, according to the IUCN; two are on the “knife-edge of extinction,” according to the letter: the vaquita, a porpoise found in the Gulf of California, is very likely down to the last 10 of its kind, while only a few hundred of the North Atlantic right whale remain. The letter says it is “almost inevitable” these two species will follow the “road to extinction” taken by the baiji, or the Chinese river dolphin that was last sighted in 2004 — a loss that could have been avoided if the “political will to take action” hadn’t been lacking.
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“It is critical that governments develop, fund, and implement additional needed actions to better protect and save these iconic species — so they don’t end going the way of the baiji,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who signed the letter.
The letter blames looming extinction on the lack of any concrete action to address threats from human activities, which include chemical and noise pollution, loss of habitat and prey, climate change, ship-strikes, and fishing. Accidental capture in nets and other fishing equipment is the biggest threat to these aquatic mammals, roughly 300,000 of whom die in this manner every year. “We have a long way to go before we can be confident the fish we are eating is not causing bycatch of protected species like whales and dolphins,” Sarah Dolman, senior policy manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said. She added that not only is accidental entanglement in fishing nets a “horrible way to die,” but it also severely injures animals, leaving them alive, but with broken teeth or beaks.
The scientists have urged countries where whales, porpoises, and dolphins are indigenous to ensure their populations are adequately protected from human activities and constantly monitored. The letter signatories have also emphasized that regional fisheries should urgently address fishing-related threats. In addition, the letter implores other nations to “work with and strengthen the relevant international bodies that seek to address threats to cetaceans.”
“As the Covid19 pandemic has shown, our connection to nature is a key component in our own wellbeing… [Whales, dolphins, and porpoises] are also sentinels of the health of our seas, oceans and, in some cases, major river systems, and the role of cetaceans in maintaining productive aquatic ecosystems, which are key for our survival as well as theirs, is also becoming clearer,” the letter noted.