Rare Dolphin Gains ESA Protection

In a response to a 2016 petition by AWI and allies, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed on May 8 to list the Taiwanese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis), also known as the Taiwanese humpback dolphin, as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The decision could well mark the difference between extinction and survival for the dolphins, as it enables the United States to provide technical expertise and resources to help Taiwan mitigate the threats they face along Taiwan’s densely populated western coast.

The animal is a subspecies of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Fewer than 100 remain. Striking in appearance, they are born gray but turn pink or white—often with patches of mottled gray—as they mature. NMFS initially denied a 2014 petition to protect them, concluding that the population was not distinct from the Chinese white dolphin, which swims near the mainland and is separated from the Taiwanese white dolphin by the deep waters of the Taiwan Strait. New taxonomy studies, however, conclude that the Taiwanese white dolphin has unique characteristics.

The dolphins are threatened by gillnet fishing, pollution, boat traffic, and development—including the potential construction of large wind farms. In April 2017, AWI marine mammal scientist Dr. Naomi Rose participated in an international workshop in Taiwan to assess the impacts of several large offshore wind farms proposed within the dolphin’s habitat. Naomi presented the workshop’s deliberations and concerns to the IWC Scientific Committee, of which she is a member. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2017.) The report helped persuade the committee to issue strong recommendations to authorities in Taiwan to tread carefully as they proceed with the wind farm proposals—balancing the need for clean energy with the need to avoid irreparable harm to one of the rarest marine mammals on the planet.