China's Baiji Dolphins Declared Extinct
A 2006 expedition has deemed the freshwater baiji dolphin species, last sighted in 2004, "functionally extinct." The ancient species—originating over 20 million years ago—was until recently found throughout China's Yangtze River and its surrounding lakes and tributaries. Unfortunately, the exponential growth of the Chinese human population posed a variety of threats to its survival, including habitat destruction resulting from the building of commercial fisheries. The species also relied heavily on echolocation because of its poor eyesight, and increased ship traffic and other anthropogenic noise impaired its ability to hear important biological sounds. In the end, despite some protective efforts, a lack of information, growing threats and the species' small population size led to the baiji's decline. This sad loss was the first marine mammal extinction in 50 years. We hope it will be a wake up call to Chinese officials, as the country's finless porpoise population now risks extinction at only 700 animals. Leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, we will print another report from our series on the country's animal welfare problems in the spring AWI Quarterly.
Iceland Resumes Commercial Whaling
The Animals Committee of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) has the responsibility of deciding whether animal species should be traded between member countries with or without restrictions, based on a review of the species' status. This process is rarely controversial, but that was not the case this past year.
Not content with merely initiating a process that could result in the CITES down listing of these fin whales, Iceland announced only a few months later that it would resume commercial whaling. The country granted itself a quota of nine fin whales and 30 minke whales, in addition to the 39 minke whales planned for lethal "scientific research" in 2007. Iceland also announced plans to engage in the international trade of whale products with Japan. Fortunately, the international response came swiftly. The US ambassador to Iceland presented a diplomatic protest, known as a "demarche" to the Icelandic government, which was followed shortly by a 25-nation demarche to Iceland, lead by the United Kingdom, with participation from the European Commission and the United States. However, Iceland was unfazed. Within a few days of its announcement, a fin whale was killed. Over the next several weeks, seven fin whales and a minke whale were slaughtered as well.
In mid-November, the United States withdrew its offer to assist Iceland in the fin whale review. The next month, it formally opposed the status review proposal to the CITES Secretariat. With more than a dozen other organizations, AWI petitioned the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Commerce to formally certify Iceland under the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen's Protective Act of 1967, the first step in the United States instituting trade sanctions against the country. Following certification, the president must decide to either impose sanctions or use diplomatic means to halt Iceland's actions. We are urging the former, since Iceland's previous certification for scientific whaling led to a diplomatic approach that achieved little.
Ahead of this year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, to be held the last week of May in Anchorage, Alaska, it appears that the pro-whaling nations and the conservation-minded nations will be represented evenly. The United States will ask the IWC for 5-year quotas for bowhead whales on behalf of its Alaskan natives and gray whales for the Washington State Makah Tribe. Securing the quotas requires a three-quarter majority. As the host country and chair of the meeting, the United States has much to lose. The stakes are high, and it must take this opportunity to show leadership and stand up to the pro-whaling nations to ensure the fight is not lost on home soil.
Four-Finned Wonder Taken During Drive Hunts
Japan's annual dolphin drive hunts are currently taking place in a few coastal towns. The Animal Welfare Institute strongly opposes this barbaric and arcane practice, whereby dolphins and other small cetaceans are driven into shallow bays and entrapped with nets. The few who are not butchered are purchased by the aquaria industry for sums sufficient to sustain the deadly drive fisheries. The meat, which is contaminated with pollutants, is sold to unsuspecting consumers, although much ends up as pet food and fertilizer. This hunting season has been particularly horrific, with hundreds of long-finned pilot whales, Risso's and bottlenose dolphins all falling victim to the hunters' knives.
On Oct. 28 in the town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, a young bottlenose dolphin was caught in the drive nets, but was spared death because of an unusual physical characteristic: he possessed two sets of fins instead of one. While the discovery of "Four-Fin" was well publicized around the world, the blood bath from whence he came was not mentioned. Four-Fin is thought to be an evolutionary throwback to a time when ancestors of the dolphin walked on land. He is now housed at the Taiji Whale Museum. The notorious facility continues to keep his past under wraps, and refused to provide us with a photo of the dolphin in his new "home." The fate that befell this rare dolphin's mother, who was also captured in the hunt that day, was not reported. She likely died after bleeding to death from being stabbed without prior stunning, or perhaps by drowning in the panic of confinement.
The hunt and many others like it were witnessed by dolphin trainer-turned-activist Ric O'Barry. Ric has traveled to Taiji for the past several hunting seasons to observe and document the hunts, which the authorities try to keep secret from Japan's public and the world. This fall, we joined forces with Ric, along with Earth Island Institute, In Defense of Animals and Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan as part of our continuing efforts to stop the hunts. A statement hosted by AWI and signed by hundreds of scientists from across the globe is also being used to bring pressure on the Japanese authorities.
We are also putting pressure on other governing bodies. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has stated that the drive hunts are contrary to its mission to "guide, encourage and support the zoos, aquariums and like-minded organizations of the world in animal care and welfare, environmental education and global conservation," yet it does not proactively police its members or applicants on this issue. WAZA should expel its member organization, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA)—to which the Taiji Whale Museum and other aquariums that source from the hunts belong—for failing to hold its member aquaria responsible for their actions.