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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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