Expanded Port Portends Doom for Taiwanese White Dolphin

In 2002, a subspecies of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin was identified in the coastal waters of western Taiwan: Sousa chinensis taiwanensis, now known as the Taiwanese white dolphin (TWD). Their skin, gray at birth, loses pigmentation as they age and turns white, but flushes bright pink from exertion. Their entire world is a narrow strip of water—only 3 kilometers wide—that hugs Taiwan’s west coast, one of the most highly industrialized in the world. Scientists and policy experts have outlined management steps needed to recover these imperiled dolphins, but to date, the government and industries have done little, if anything, to save them.

The TWD population is precariously small—almost certainly numbering fewer than 60 individuals (2017 surveys gave a population estimate of 60, and all indications are that the population has been declining). Despite this, the Taiwanese government has recently approved the Taichung Outer Port Area Expansion Project, intended to expand one of its largest west coast ports to provide support for the continued industrialization of TWD habitat. As with prior port construction, this will involve land reclamation, a process that destroys nearshore marine and river mouth habitat—in this case almost directly in the center of the TWD’s distribution. In short, it will cut their only known home in half.

The expansion would force the animals farther offshore as they attempt to travel to and from waters north and south of Taichung Port; research has shown that nearly all the remaining individuals do move through this area frequently. TWD avoid deep water; thus, the expanded port may very well keep some of the dolphins permanently on one side or the other of this point. This could prove the death knell of the subspecies, as vital breeding opportunities would be missed and food resources cut off. Rather than protecting and restoring TWD habitat, the Taiwanese government is approving projects that further damage and destroy it. 

The TWD is fast going the way of the Yangtze river dolphin (baiji)—now believed extinct—and the rapidly disappearing vaquita in Mexico. The increasing number of wind turbines being constructed along Taiwan’s west coast was concerning enough, but port expansion could be the final blow. There is no way to mitigate its impact, either—to at least some of these dolphins, it will likely prove an impenetrable wall.

AWI led the effort that prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to list this subspecies under the US Endangered Species Act in May 2018, but has since been disappointed by the lack of US support for efforts to stop the TWD’s demise; our government can certainly do better. Regardless, AWI implores the Taiwanese government to forgo this port expansion. It has done the right thing in the past, choosing not to build a massive petrochemical plant on the west coast after substantial public protest. This tiny dolphin population is Taiwan’s gift and responsibility, and its government should do all it can to recover the TWD’s numbers so the subspecies can thrive in all its pink and white glory for generations to come. 

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