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Disappearing dolphins clamour for attention at whale summit

Small whales are disappearing from the world's oceans and waterways as they fall victim to fishing gear, pollution, and habitat loss – compounded by a lack of conservation measures such as those developed for great whales, according to a new WWF report.

Small cetaceans: The Forgotten Whales, released today, states that inadequate conservation measures are pushing small cetaceans – such as dolphins, porpoises and small whales – toward extinction as their survival is overshadowed by efforts to save their larger cousins.

"Although great whale species of the world are by no means secure and still require conservation attention, the situation is just as critical for these smaller, seemingly forgotten species," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of the Species Programme for WWF-International.

While great whales are now protected (to an extent) by the international commercial whaling moratorium, in effect since 1986, small cetacean hunts continue around the globe, largely unmanaged and unchecked by the international community.

For example, the hunt of 16,000 Dall's porpoises every year in Japan is considered unsustainable. Yet several of the pro-whaling nations taking part in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting this week object to discussing small cetacean conservation.

"It is time for the IWC and its members to take full responsibility for the conservation future of all whales great and small. The IWC – and the world - must not ignore the small whales of our planet until it is too late," said Dr. Lieberman.

A significant disadvantage smaller whale species face compared to great whales is a crippling lack of data on their numbers and habits. Forty of the 69 small cetacean species, or 58 percent, are classified by IUCN as 'data deficient', meaning that there is not enough information available to even determine whether they are threatened or not.

"It must never be assumed that "Data Deficient" means that the species is out of danger— rather, it means that the world's top scientists just don't know," the report says.

Only four out of 15 Species, or 27 percent, of great whales are listed as data deficient, even though many of the reasons why smaller whale species are difficult to study also apply to the great whales.

According to the IUCN Red List, population trends – whether the species is increasing or decreasing in number – are unknown for 60 of the 69 small cetacean species. The nine remaining species are in decline.

Great whales also have more protection in international conservation efforts. Almost all great whale species, for example, have the strongest level of protection offered by CITES – a conservation convention which regulates international trade in protected wildlife species – compared to just 17 percent of dolphin and porpoises species. In addition, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) protects 87 percent of great whale species, but less than half of smaller whale species.

Small cetaceans fulfill a critical role in their environment, stabilising and ensuring a healthy and productive ecosystem. They also are part of the highly profitable whale and dolphin watching industry worldwide, which generates over US $1.5 billion each year.

"If small cetaceans are not central to negotiations on current whaling, it is possible that conservation successes achieved for great whales could simply result in a shift of problems from great whales to small cetaceans," the report states.

IWC 61 runs June 22 to 26 in Madeira, Portugal.

Sarah Janicke | EurekAlert!
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