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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Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a335b5dffdd806bd6bb4debea90c2045"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dxsb9c4HMn0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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