Killing of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australian trawl nets at ‘unsustainable’ levels, study warns

Killing of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australian trawl nets at ‘unsustainable’ levels, study warns

A study warns that bottlenose dolphins are being caught and killed at unsustainable numbers in trawl nets in Western Australia’s north.

The discovery is based on an examination of the Pilbara trawl, which catches emperor, snapper, trevally, cod, and grouper for the Perth market.

According to a report released last year by the federal environment department, the trawl’s bycatch kills between 11 and 17 bottlenose dolphins each year.

In peer-reviewed research, the rate has previously been estimated to be as high as 50 per year by independent observers.

Researchers utilized a modeling approach that included chance occurrences to analyze population decreases among bottlenose dolphins in the Pilbara, according to a new international study published in the Conservation Biology journal.

Dr Simon Allen, an adjunct research fellow at the University of Western Australia, said the study found capture rates remained unsustainable even with mitigation efforts.

“Bycatch reduction devices were placed in the trawl nets in 2006 and there has been some monitoring since, but no quantitative assessment of the impact of fishery-related dolphin mortality was ever carried out,” Allen said.

“We set out to model different levels of dolphin capture, including those reported in fishers’ logbooks and those reported by independent observers.

“Unfortunately, our results show clearly that even the lowest reported annual dolphin capture rates are not sustainable.”

Previous models had focused simply on the maximum number of marine animals that could be killed without affecting the sustainability of the population.

The new study takes into account environmental and demographic factors, including the dependency of offspring on their mothers and chance events such as heatwaves.

It found the “acceptable” number of bottlenose dolphin bycatch deaths was between two and eight a year, compared to 16 under the less-sophisticated model.

“These results suggest that reported bycatch rates are unsustainable in the long term, unless reproductive rates are consistently higher than average,” the authors found.

WA’s primary industries department is required to publish an ecological risk assessment of the Pilbara trawl by December this year.

In a report last year, the federal environment department said there were only two vessels operating in the fishery and the risk to sustainability was generally considered to be low.

But the report said there were still “relatively large” numbers of dolphins and critically endangered green sawfish being killed every year.

“The vulnerable nature of such species suggests that any interactions are potentially significant,” it said.

“Efforts to lower the number of TEPS (threatened, endangered and protected species) interactions and mortalities should continue.”

Research has indicated the bottlenose dolphin population in the Pilbara may be distinct from other populations, leaving it particularly vulnerable to fishing-related deaths.

This article was first published by The Guardian on 29 April 2022. Lead Image: Bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia are being killed at unsustainable levels after being caught in trawl nets, a new study says. Photograph: Andy Schofield/RSPB/PA.

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