The fate of the dolphin: Nicola Hodgins is the head of science and research at the WDC and develops the organisation’s projects surrounding dolphins
What makes dolphins worth saving?
Very much their huge intelligence – they’re second only to humans. They have been shown to have self-recognition so they’re incredibly intelligent animals, and incredibly social animals as well. They live in family groups and have long-term associations. They even have culture which they pass on down through generations. They are very similar to humans and great apes and just by their inherent nature they’re worth protecting and conserving.
What impact would it have if dolphins were to disappear from our oceans?
It’s hard to say, but the impact would be huge. Dolphins are what we call indicator species, which means that if an ecosystem is losing one of the largest predators, then there’s something going wrong. They’re sentinel beings and they show us about the health of the ocean, the fish stocks and pollution. We can’t truly know the effect losing dolphins would have on the food chain. When you look at Californian sea otters, they were almost hunted to extinction and there was an enormous impact on their prey species. Everything is interconnected and to lose any species, particularly a top predator like dolphins, would be catastrophic.
What would you say the future of the dolphin holds?
Well, there’s so many different species that it’s hard to answer that. There are 87 to 90 species of dolphin, whale and porpoise so it’s difficult to predict the future for each individual species. Even some of the different populations within those species are in danger. For some it’s positive and for some it’s not so positive. Quite a few populations and species are on the brink of extinction because of human threats. It’s a very varied picture.
Is there any real danger of dolphins becoming extinct?
Dolphins in general, no. There are hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them, but many species and individual populations are being wiped out one by one. There’s a real danger of their extinction being fairly imminent. The vaquita’s numbers have been declining ten-fold over the last couple of decades and they’re now down to around 75 individuals. There’s a community of orca that spend their time between the north of Scotland and around Ireland. They are now down to what’s believed to be eight individuals, and they’ve not reproduced in years. As long as they’ve been studied they’ve had no calves and at this point you could call them scientifically extinct as a population. Once they’re gone they won’t be replaced.
Is there real hope for these seriously endangered species that are down to double figures?
Once you go down to those kind of figures the sad story is there’s not really much hope. There’s a situation in Hong Kong where the Chinese white dolphin has reached the stage now where there are actually years where every single calf will die within a couple of months of being born. It’s to do with the pollutant level and their numbers have reduced from around 65 to 85.
Those are depressing figures but at the same time there are obviously success stories. There are areas that have been protected and legislation put in place to hopefully reduce the fishing pressure, but also to stop animals being hunted in countries around the world. It’s all about awareness, and getting people to realise the real value of these animals
What can our readers do to contribute to dolphin conservation themselves?
They can donate and become a supporter of the WCD where the funds would go towards really important work. They can also help by writing letters to local politicians and governments. It’s important to think about your shopping choices, like making sure that fish is sustainable and is not coming from sources that are also involved in whaling. Don’t go to dolphinariums, don’t go to SeaWorld or any of these places when you’re on holiday. Don’t get fooled by the offer of swimming with smiling, happy dolphins. The majority have been caught from the wild, taken from their families and put into a concrete tank for the rest of their lives to entertain humans. They aren’t living wild and free, which is where they’re meant to be.
Image from www.flickr.com/photos/stuutje