Saturday, April 4, 2009

Thousands of rare Irrawaddy dolphins found along Bangladesh coast

Population of 6,000 endangered dolphins under threat from climate change and fishing, US conservationists warn

New study shows that today  6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins are alive and swimming in Bangladesh

New study shows that today 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins are alive and swimming in Bangladesh. Photograph: WCS

Conservationists claim to have found thousands of rare Irrawaddy dolphins on the Bangladesh coast, but warn that the newly discovered population is under threat from climate change and fishing.

Researchers from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said they have found nearly 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins living in the freshwater regions of Bangladesh's Sundarbans mangrove forest and nearby waters in the Bay of Bengal.

The largest known populations of Irrawaddy dolphins to date have numbered in the low hundreds or less – at least 125 in the Mekong river, 77 in the Malampaya Sound in the Philippines and up to 100 in the Mahakam River, Indonesia.

Until this new Bangladesh population was found, figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated the Sundarbans population to be around 450. WCS says it used rigorous scientific techniques in an area where little marine mammal research has taken place to document the new population.

"The number of animals could be higher – or lower," said Howard Rosenbaum, the director of WCS's ocean giants cetacean programme. "Our best estimate given the science is that there are 6,000. It sounds a lot but the Sundarbans cover a huge area. When you look at the areas that have been surveyed before the populations are low as they are in areas impacted by human development. But this area had never before been surveyed. We're really excited and this finding gives us great hope but this species is still very vulnerable."

The discovery of a new population is an important finding as scientists and conservation groups do not know how many Irrawaddy dolphins remain across south and south-east Asia. The species, related to orcas or killer whales, were listed in 2008 as "vulnerable" on the IUCN's "red list" of endangered species due to declines in known populations.

"This discovery gives us great hope that there is a future for Irrawaddy dolphins," said Brian D Smith, the study's lead author. "Bangladesh clearly serves as an important sanctuary for Irrawaddy dolphins, and conservation in this region should be a top priority."

"With all the news about freshwater environments and the state of the oceans, WCS's discovery that a thriving population of Irrawaddy dolphins exists in Bangladesh gives us hope for protecting this and other endangered species and their important habitats," said Steven E Sanderson, the president and chief executive of the WCS.

The results of the study were announced yesterday at the world's first international conference on marine mammal protected areas in Maui, Hawaii, and published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management.

But the scientists warned that the dolphins are becoming increasingly threatened by accidental entanglement in fishing nets. Declining freshwater supplies also pose a threat – from upstream water diversions such as dams and by rising sea levels caused by climate change that will see the loss of freshwater habitats.

These problems also threaten the Ganges river dolphins, an endangered species that also inhabits the Sundarbans. The recent likely extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji, is a potent reminder of how vulnerable freshwater dolphins are to extinction via the impacts of humans, the organisation said.

The Irrawaddy dolphin grows to some 2-2.5 metres in length (6.5-8ft) and lives in large rivers, estuaries, and freshwater lagoons in south and south-east Asia.

As recently as 1996 they were listed as "data deficient" as not enough was known about the species and its range and habitats.

Since then, the IUCN said, five populations have been listed as critically endangered, and the range of the populations and their numbers have declined as they have been caught as bycatch and faced habitat degradation.

Scientists estimated the numbers of the new Bangladesh population using a technique called distance sampling – taking a boat along plotted grid lines and counting the numbers of animals seen, accounting for how many are above or below the surface and whether the same animal has been counted twice. The team covered 1,000 sq km of water during the survey in 2004.

Mark Simmonds, the international director of science for the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: "This discovery is an interesting one as it reflects the fact that now the Sundarbans have been more fully surveyed, we have a much better idea of how many animals are there. Irrawaddy dolphins are getting rarer and rarer in that part of the world. To find 6,000 isn't huge – but it's significant – and it does show that when you look for something and survey properly you can get some interesting findings.

"But the most important thing is that mangrove habitat is incredibly threatened, and while it's great to know that they are full of dolphins, we wish they could live somewhere else. Mangroves are threatened by changes in the water passing through them – from extreme weather, sea level rises, changes in salinity and changes to water systems upstream. The Sundarbans system is important and needs better protection."

The WCS has asked Bangladesh authorities to establish a sanctuary for the dolphins in the Sundarbans mangrove forest.

Ainun Nishat, the Bangladesh head of International Union for Conservation of Nature, said the finding was an indication that "ecology in the area is not dead yet".

"There is plenty of food, mainly fish, in the area for the dolphins to eat," said Nishat, who was not involved in the study. "What is now needed is to restrict fishing in the area to protect the dolphins."

Climate change the biggest loser of G20 summit, warn environmental groups

• G20 stimulus package has 'short-changed the planet'
• Fears that greenhouse emissions will continue to rise

G20 members gather for a group portrait

G20 members gather for a group portrait. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The $1.1 trillion stimulus package agreed by G20 leaders yesterday risks locking the world into a high-carbon economy in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, environmental groups have warned.

Campaigners agreed that the summit's biggest loser was the fight against climate change, despite a positive response from global financial markets to the announcement of financial aid. At the summit, prime minister Gordon Brown reiterated support for low-carbon economic growth and tackling climate change.

"In mobilising the world's economies to fight back against recession we are resolved to ... promote low-carbon growth and to create the green jobs on which our future prosperity depends," he said. "We are committed to ... working together to seek agreement on a post-2012 climate change regime at the UN conference in Copenhagen in December."

"Once again world leaders have short-changed people and the planet," said Friends of the Earth's executive director Andy Atkins. "The economic system and the global environment are on a devastating collision course – but despite pledging to build an inclusive, green and sustainable recovery little has been done to change direction."

British government officials lost the battle to include a commitment to spend a substantial share of the economic stimulus on low-carbon recovery projects. The economist Lord Nicholas Stern has recommended that 20% of fiscal stimulus spending should be on projects to address climate change.

The communique's comments on the low-carbon economy and climate change negotiations were limited to two paragraphs at the end, and made no specific commitments.

It said: "We agreed to make the best possible use of investment funded by fiscal stimulus programmes towards the goal of building a resilient, sustainable, and green recovery. We will make the transition towards clean, innovative, resource efficient, low-carbon technologies and infrastructure ... We reaffirm our commitment to address the threat of irreversible climate change, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and to reach agreement at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009."

Britain's environment secretary, Ed Miliband, said that "the very fact that this was part of the discussions – and the commitment to Copenhagen is part of that too – is a sign of that much-needed commodity, momentum".

But the UN's top climate official called for action, not words. "It's always useful to reiterate the commitment; better to actually do it," said Yvo de Boer. He added: "This is a good example of the major economies of the world coming together and developing a common understanding."

Greenpeace's executive director, John Sauven, said: "Tacking climate change on to the end of the communique as an after thought does not demonstrate anything like the seriousness we needed to see. Hundreds of billions were found for the IMF and World Bank, but for making the transition to a green economy there is no money on the table, just vague aspirations, talks about talks and agreements to agree."

Diplomatic sources said China led the opposition to green language in the final text.

Mark Malloch Brown, the foreign office minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, said there were fears, particularly among emerging economies, that environmental requirements might act as an impediment on trade and the speed of recovery.

"The buzzword 'low-carbon recovery' triggers fears of protectionism being introduced through the back door," said Lord Malloch Brown. The concern is that countries would impose import tarriffs on goods from nations with lower environmental standards. Brown said another problem was that negotiating officials often had narrow responsibilities – trade for example – and were reluctant to work outside of them. "They want to hold the line against what they see as mission creep," he said.

Officials stressed that the objective of the G20 summit was to agree to an economic strategy. But campaigners say that if tough measures to fight global warming are not agreed soon, the consequences will be far worse than the global financial crisis.

David Norman, the World Wildlife Fund's campaigns director, said:

"Any argument that climate change should be moved down the political agenda until the current economic crisis is addressed is incredibly shortsighted. Finance and the climate are inextricably linked, and if we don't address climate change now, we will certainly pay later."

Ice-free Arctic Ocean Possible In 30 Years, Not 90 As Previously Estimated

From: ScienceDaily

The amount of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice at the end of summer by then could be only about 1 million square kilometers, or about 620,000 square miles. That's compared to today's ice extent of 4.6 million square kilometers, or 2.8 million square miles. So much more open water could be a boon for shipping and for extracting minerals and oil from the seabed, but it raises the question of ecosystem upheaval.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 assessed what might happen in the Arctic in the future based on results from more than a dozen global climate models, two researchers reasoned that dramatic declines in the extent of ice at the end of summer in 2007 and 2008 called for a different approach.

Out of the 23 models now available, the new projections are based on the six most suited for assessing sea ice, according to Muyin Wang, a University of Washington climate scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean based at the UW, and James Overland, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

Once the extent of ice at the end of summer drops to 4.6 million square kilometers -- it was actually 4.3 million square kilometers in 2007 and 4.7 million in 2008 -- all six models show rapid sea-ice declines. Averaged together the models point to a nearly ice-free Arctic in 32 years, with some of the models putting the event as early as 11 years from now.

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