Brazil's Amazon River Dolphin Faces Extinction After Fishing Moratorium Ends
By Peter Yeung
A pair of pink Amazon river dolphins emerges for just a moment, arcing above the chocolate brown waters inside the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development, a research facility at the tropical heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Powerful jets of water spray out of their blowholes as these freshwater mammals take in air before submerging.
Moments later the duo reappear on the other side of the Japurá River, playfully dovetailing, and skirting the edge of the várzea rainforest — a seasonal floodplain where, in this part of Amazonia, river levels can rise and fall by up to 12 meters (39 feet) a year, at times opening up vast swathes of rainforest to these graceful swimmers.
"They are very special creatures," says Natanael dos Santos, a guide working at the Mamirauá Institute. "They are extremely intelligent and can display a complex set of behaviors, even like humans." These skilled, sharp-toothed hunters, often reaching more than eight feet in length, are well adapted to shifting river levels. During highwater periods they penetrate deep into the rainforest using echolocation to search murky pools amid submerged tree roots for prey including dozens of fish species, turtles and freshwater crabs.
The Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) or boto, already classified as "endangered" since 2018 by the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is now coming under even more serious threat across Brazil and Latin America. An estimated population in the low tens of thousands is thought to exist in the wild, though counting the animals accurately in the Amazon's murky streams is challenging. Like other river dolphins, the boto communicates with variable whistle tones.
Occupying the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, which cut across the northern half of the South American continent, these freshwater mammals were historically abundant, and are protected today by Brazilian law; it is illegal to kill them. But for years, poachers have targeted the dolphins, using their fatty blubber as bait to catch a carnivorous catfish called piracatinga, which is drawn to the scent of rotting flesh.
In January 2015, under the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, that chronic criminal behavior led to the introduction of a five-year moratorium on catching piracatinga in order to better protect the dolphins.
But that moratorium ended earlier this year and has yet to be renewed by the Jair Bolsonaro administration, which is undermining many other of Brazil's environmental laws. Experts warn that the failure to extend it could lead to the extinction of the largest freshwater dolphin in the world — a fate that befell China's Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) in 2007, following years of overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation.
"I believe [the lack of a moratorium] could make them extinct," warns Dr. Vera da Silva, a researcher for INPA, the Amazon research institute, who has been studying Amazonia's dolphins for more than 30 years. "Not all the objectives of the moratorium were fulfilled, therefore the moratorium must be extended," she explained.
Research by da Silva, published in 2017, found that a female dolphin's pregnancy typically lasts 13 months. After that, the mother feeds a calf underwater for two years. Due to that long gestation and nursing period, females only reproduce every three to five years.
"They are a very slow reproductive species," da Silva notes. "If the removal is higher [than the reproduction and rearing rate] the species does not have the capacity to replace itself."
Separate findings by da Silva published in 2018 revealed that the Amazon river dolphin population in Brazil is halving every decade.
Prosecutors in Amazonas state, where the Mamirauá Institute is based, originally asked for the moratorium which started in 2015, warning that as many as 2,500 dolphins were being killed illegally each year for bait.
Da Silva reports that in November 2019 she met with officials from the Secretariat of Production of the State of Amazonas (SEPROR), to discuss the extension of the moratorium in Amazonas. But nothing has happened since, and the peak fishing season is due to begin in July.
"There is a huge amount of ignorance," she warns. "We need better information on fishing practices. There aren't strong enough laws to make fishermen report what they catch."
Marcelo Oliveira, a conservation specialist at World Wildlife Fund Brazil (WWF), agrees with that analysis. "Fishing is a threat but we don't have enough data," he says. "If we don't know where the river dolphins are, we can't say how bad [the threat] is. But it's expensive to do expeditions to monitor population trends."
WWF has been innovating — utilizing drones to accomplish the difficult job of making improved population estimates, flying 2.5 kilometer strips of river to record footage. "It's much cheaper and more efficient," than doing boat observations, he says. The NGO is currently partnering with British universities to analyze the drone findings using artificial intelligence.
But even with better data recording practices and an improved data set, Oliveira says that the river dolphins are still at great risk from a broad range of threats. "Bycatch sees so many dolphins caught in fishing nets, gold mining in the region has led to mercury poisoning in the water, and the construction of hydroelectric dams has reduced their habitat and genetic pool," he explains.
Oliveira believes that for now the focus of dolphin conservation should be on improved community engagement across the Amazon basin, with strong outreach to fishermen, in a region whose burgeoning population has now topped 34 million.
"Extending the moratorium could be a way to protect the dolphins, alternative baits could be a way, but we need to have a balance between development and biodiversity conservation," he says. "It's not a fight between the two. If communities are involved in conservation, the dolphins will be safer."
Fernando Trujillo, scientific director of the Fundacion Omacha, a Colombia-based environmental NGO specializing in protecting river dolphins set up in 1993, says that conservation must also be addressed on an international level.
"The end of [Brazil's] moratorium will send out the message that fishing is okay — even in other countries across Latin America," he says. "We need to work together with all the countries in terms of policy, agreeing on the same criteria and same legislation, especially when it comes to monitoring the borders."
Trujillo, who is also co-chair of the International Whaling Commission's small cetaceans committee, is calling for the Brazil moratorium to be extended another five years. "For so many reasons, it's a species we need to conserve and save," he says. "Alive dolphins can produce more money than dead ones for local communities through ecotourism."
Indigenous beliefs hold that the river dolphin — which transforms from grey to pink as it ages — is a magical creature. Males and females are both said to have the ability to morph at will into either a handsome man, or beautiful woman respectively, in order to seduce villagers in the dark of night. But scientists see the mammals as top predators of the Amazon aquatic ecosystem — considering them the jaguars of the rivers.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply said it had not yet extended the moratorium because "it is necessary to evaluate its effects on the recovery of populations of porpoises and caimans in order to verify the effectiveness of this fisheries management measure." When asked by Mongabay to comment, the ministry did not provide a timeframe for this evaluation period.
There is another myth about the Amazon river dolphin. It is said that to kill one is bad luck. Not knowing what negative aquatic impacts might radiate from the extinction of this top predator, authorities may want to heed this legend as they try to decide whether or not to renew Brazil's moratorium.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
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