Drone Footage Captures Elusive Finless Porpoises in Hong Kong
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
Two silvery-white porpoises glide through the ocean, captured in the lens of a drone camera. The pair swim side by side, occasionally surfacing for a quick breath of air. After a few minutes, they're joined by several other porpoises, and the group travels together before disappearing into deeper waters.
This is the first drone video ever recorded of the rare and very elusive Indo-Pacific finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) in Hong Kong, says Gary Stokes, director of Oceans Asia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation group.
Rare footage of the finless porpoise of Hong Kong released
"I made it my personal holy grail to get footage of these porpoise as they are so hard to document and no one has anything decent," Stokes told Mongabay. "Everyone I spoke with working on them in Hong Kong has little to no images. The best pictures resemble a 'floating tire,' which is as best as you can really get if you are really lucky."
But Stokes said he got extremely lucky when he went out on his boat to search for them off the coast of South Lantau Island on May 2. "At one point I had 9 to 10 animals, which is said to be about as large a pod as they get, and very uncommon in Hong Kong," he said.
The finless porpoise is a small, bathtub-sized creature with a distinctive attribute: unlike many other cetaceans, it only has a small dorsal ridge on its back, rather than a proper dorsal fin. This trait gives the finless porpoise its name, and makes it very difficult to detect in the water.
A pair of finless porpoises off the coast of Hong Kong. Gary Stokes / OceansAsia
But there aren't many finless porpoises left in Hong Kong waters. In 2002, a group of researchers published a report that estimated there to be about 152 finless porpoises in the springtime, Hong Kong's peak season, and a total of 220 porpoises year round. A more recent report, published by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in Hong Kong, said there was a total of 269 finless porpoises in Hong Kong waters between 2018 and 2019, a slightly higher number. Thomas Jefferson, an author of the 2002 report, told Mongabay that he and a team of researchers would also be publishing a new report in a scientific journal later this year, estimating there to be 176 porpoises during the spring of 2019, which was "a very slight increase" from previous estimates.
The population may have risen moderately, but Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia, says there are still serious concerns about the finless porpoise in Hong Kong based on the number of strandings, which seem to be increasing each year. In the last 14 years, at least 319 finless porpoises were stranded, according to data collected by the AFCD and Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK), which was published in a new report by OceansAsia. Last year is thought to be the deadliest year for the species, with 42 officially recorded strandings, although the report notes that at least one or two additional strandings weren't officially recorded. In 2020, there have already been 15 strandings as of May 16, according to OceansAsia.
"It's really alarming," Phelps Bondaroff, author of the new report, told Mongabay. "Biologists will say that if the annual mortality for a species is between 4 to 5%, that's unsustainable. Well, 42 or 43 porpoise is definitely much more than four to five percent of 220."
But these strandings are just the ones that are reported. Finless porpoises are frequently trapped and killed in fishing nets as bycatch, and fishermen may not disclose these casualties to the authorities, Phelps Bondaroff said.
"The law basically says that it's illegal to be in possession of a protected animal … and these porpoises are protected animals in Hong Kong," he said. "But the problem is that if you accidentally get one entangled in your net, you have the burden to prove that you didn't intentionally catch it. And that's very difficult for fishers to do. It's a lot of paperwork, there's bureaucracy involved, and it's sometimes, much easier to simply dump the porpoise over and continue on."
Besides fishing net entanglement, finless porpoises are also threatened by ship strikes, noise pollution, and plastic pollution. However, when a porpoise is found stranded, the cause of death isn't always clear based on the necropsies conducted by the OPCFHK, Phelps Bondaroff said.
"Not all necropsies are as detailed as they could be," he said. "Some of them are comprehensive with a CT scan … but others are cursory and done in the field, and the problem is that you don't have consistent data."
OceansAsia makes several recommendations in its report to help conserve the species. First, it suggests that another comprehensive finless porpoise survey be conducted, which will help determine how vulnerable the population is. Second, it proposes making the southwest coast of Lamma Island in Hong Kong, which is prime habitat for finless porpoises, a marine park. Third, it recommends a better system for stranding reporting and comprehensive analysis, a fisheries observation program, and a revision of the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance so fishermen are more likely to report accidental strandings.
The finless porpoise doesn't just live in the coastal waters of Hong Kong, but ranges across Southeast Asia, India, and even the Middle East. Like Hong Kong, some local populations are evaluated to be quite low. For instance, one study estimates that about 135 finless porpoises live off the coast of Sarawak, Malaysia. However, John Wang, co-author of the Red List assessments for the IUCN, says that other areas may boast "pretty decent densities [of the finless purpose] relative to other species."
"Most of the time, the 'rareness' is a misconception because most people won't see finless porpoises even if they swim right by them," Wang told Mongabay in an email. "So, no doubt they are dying in probably high numbers wherever gillnet fishing also occur, they are also probably reproducing quite quickly (being a porpoise) but we have no idea how many there are out there."
The finless porpoise is currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, which means the species faces a high threat of extinction but is not considered endangered. Yet, there would be variances across the species' distribution, according to Randall Reeves, who also acts as chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Cetacean Specialist Group.
"[I]t's important to bear in mind that an assessment of the species, and especially when the species' distribution is as extensive (and under-surveyed) as is the case for Neophocaena phocaenoides, must not be interpreted to mean that some, even many, local populations are not Endangered, Critically Endangered, or even Extirpated," Reeves told Mongabay in an email. "In fact, we tried to make this point explicitly in the Justification portion of the assessment."
CORRECTION (06/09/2020): A previous version of this article stated that John Wang was a co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Cetacean Specialist Group, but this was corrected to say that he is a co-author of the Red List assessments for the IUCN.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
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>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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