PRESS RELEASE: Matsu’s Fish seizes “Critically Endangered” title, winning international glory for Taiwan

Note: The following is the press release/petition delivered by Matsu's Fish Conservation Union, Green Party Taiwan, the Congressional Office of Legislator Tian Chiu-chin and Taiwan Friends of the Global Greens on 13 August 2008 during a press conference held in front of the Council of Agriculture in response to the listing of Taiwan's humpback dolphins as "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN in its 2008 update of the Cetacean Red List.

Photo: A make-shift President Ma
presents the Critically Endangered
award to a humpback dolphin

(Matsu's Fish Conservation Union, established in January 2007, is a coalition of the following Taiwanese conservation groups: Taiwan Academy of Ecology, Taiwan Sustainable Union, Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, Wild Bird Society of Yunlin, Changhua Coast Conservation Action and FormosaCetus Research and Conservation Group.)

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Due to being isolated from other populations of the same species, Taiwan’s "Matsu's Fish" (Sousa chinensis), also known as the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin or Chinese white dolphin, has evolved in a way that distinguishes it from other populations. It is now recognized by the international cetacean science community that Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins constitute a unique population.

Because of the serious level of threat to this population, local and international experts formed the Eastern Taiwan Strait Sousa Technical Advisory Working Group (ETSSTAWG) on 8 January 2008. The following day, Taiwanese environmental groups presented a petition to the Executive Yuan, requesting the government to draft a conservation plan within two months. Regrettably, after half a year of efforts by those environmental groups, the government has still not proposed a conservation plan, instead expressing plans to open up the coastal waters within three nautical miles of the shore to drag-net fishing, which will thoroughly destroy the near-shore ecology.

While the government continues to evade its responsibility to protect the environment, the threat to the survival of Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins is nevertheless receiving increasing international recognition. On 12 August (GMT), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which comprises 70 countries, over 1000 societies and over 10 000 scientists, has assessed Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins to be Critically Endangered (CR), the highest level of threat to a species or population.

In response to the IUCN announcing Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins as Critically Endangered, Taiwanese environmental groups are holding a press conference to raise the attention of the government and public to the fact that the conservation of Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins has already become the focus of attention of international conservation organizations, and is a responsibility that the government has no choice but to face.

Image source: IUCN Species Survival Commission.

Today, the groups presenting this petition will also visit the competent authority for wildlife conservation – the Council of Agriculture – to ask that the government take urgent conservation action. We have three requests:

1. Set up an interdepartmental Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin conservation committee, which should work with ETSSTAWG to produce a conservation strategy.
2. Implement marine conservation laws, announce this dolphin population’s important habitat, and prevent the development of near-shore drag-net fishing.
3. Stop the large-scale, pollution-intensive development within areas which affect the dolphins until it is certain that these projects will have no impact on the dolphins.

Groups presenting this petition:
Taiwan Sustainable Union, Taiwan Academy of Ecology, Green Party Taiwan, Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Congressional Office of Legislator Tian Chiu-chin, Taiwan Friends of the Global Greens, Wild Bird Society of Yunlin, Changhua Coast Conservation Action and FormosaCetus Research and Conservation Group.

Time: 13 August 2008 (Wednesday), 9.30am
Location: Council of Agriculture (37 Nanhai Road, Chongcheng District, Taipei)

2008 Introduction to Matsu’s Fish (Sousa chinensis, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, Chinese white dolphin)

The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis), otherwise known as the Chinese white dolphin and in Taiwan as Matsu’s Fish, is grey when born, forms grey spots during its youth and becomes white or pink when mature (hence another of its names – the pink dolphin). It is believed that the name “Matsu’s Fish”, given by fishermen, is due to the fact that they are easier to see around the time of Matsu’s birthday in the third month of the lunar calendar, when the sea becomes calmer. This species is distributed in the temperate and tropical zones of the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific region, and prefers near shore waters and estuaries. Research by FormosaCetus Research and Conservation Group has shown that the coloration of the Taiwanese population is different to that of other studied populations, and is likely an independent population. The entire population is now facing risk of extinction.

Current knowledge of the biology and ecology of Taiwan’s Matsu’s Fish is as follows: 1. Their important habitat is along Taiwan’s central west coast from Miaoli to Yunlin and possibly Chiayi and Tainan Counties, within 5km of the shore, and in waters of not more than 25-30m deep. 2. Under natural circumstances they can live to probably 30-40 years old. 3. They have a low reproductive rate and population growth rate, and a nursing period of about 3 years. 4. Currently, over 30% of the dolphins show signs of external injury, and malnourished dolphins are often seen. 5. According to the results of photo identification work by researchers, the entire Taiwanese population does not exceed 100 and is likely to be lower than 100.

Because they live all year round in shallow, near-shore waters, they are extremely vulnerable to human-caused impacts. In Taiwan they face the following threats: loss of habitat due to land reclamation along Taiwan’s west coast, serious water pollution, entanglement and bycatch in fishing gear, e.g. gill nets (drift nets, trammel nets, bottom-set gill nets) and drag nets, direct collisions with vessels, and impacts on their sonar systems due to underwater noise. In China, the baiji or Yangtze River Dolphin, also known as the Goddess of the Yangtze, was recently driven to extinction due to similar, multiple threats. Now Matsu’s Fish is facing a survival crisis, as there are no more than 100 dolphins left in the population and the threats remain.

The dolphins’ survival can also be seen as an indicator of the sustainability (or lack thereof) of Taiwan’s development. Great challenges lie ahead for the conservation of the population.