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When porpoises and people overlap

We’re funding a project in Hong Kong that’s working with fishing communities to help save the vulnerable finless porpoises who share the sea with them.

When you picture Hong Kong, you probably think about a thriving business and banking metropolis, but did you know that living there, within some of the busiest waters in the world, are a group of elusive yet beautiful finless porpoises?

These little guys are exactly how you might imagine them – long and sleek, no discernible beak and as the name suggests, no fin on their back. They look just like little torpedoes! Given that one of the identifying features of any whale, dolphin or porpoise is their fin, you can imagine how challenging it is to study them.

Finless porpoises in Hong Kong
These sleek little porpoises look like torpedoes

Under pressure

As a species, the finless porpoise is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN. The Hong Kong population has fewer than 200 individuals, and with an average of 29 deaths every year for the last five years, these shy little creatures are clearly under severe pressure. All measures to help them must be explored and expedited.

Finless porpoises in Hong Kong
Hong Kong finless porpoises. Image: SEAMAR

Will you support lifesaving projects like this one?

Safer seas

Although all commercial trawling was banned in Hong Kong waters in 2012, an extensive small-scale fishing industry continues, with entanglement in fishing gear a known cause of death for porpoises. Given the small population number and the high mortality rate, even a handful of porpoise lives saved would improve the population’s chances of survival and, of course, benefit the welfare of individuals. So we’re funding a brilliant project in Hong Kong that aims to reduce the threats this population faces and make their busy urban home safer for them.

Collaboration with fishing communities is key to conservation success. Image: WDC/JTF
Collaboration with fishing communities is key to conservation success. Image: WDC/JTF

Local knowledge

The first step was to better understand where the fisheries and porpoises overlap. So the team set out to document local community knowledge and cooperate with fishing communities to collect data on where and how often porpoises are seen around active fishing gear. Using a combination of GPS tracking devices on fishing vessels and sound recorders on fishing gear, researchers built maps showing bycatch risk hotspots in Hong Kong.

We built maps to show where risk is greatest
We built maps to show where risk is greatest

Community led

In Hong Kong, as in many areas globally, conservation management plans are developed from the top down, with little engagement of communities, such as these fishers. In this study, however, from data collection to report writing, the fishers are involved in every step and are key participants in the ongoing development of measures to protect porpoises. In this case, the fishing communities are the instigators of conservation action and by participating in the project, have made a commitment to improve the prospects for the local porpoise population.

Looking out for the elusive porpoises in Hong Kong
Looking out for the elusive porpoises in Hong Kong

Exciting future

One of the things that really excites me is that we can use this project template as a framework in other places where small-scale fisheries and coastal dolphins, porpoises and whales overlap. In this way we can empower fishers to make a positive contribution conservation while also preserving local fisheries, which provide food to the coastal communities who depend on it.

This study is only just the beginning. We hope to keep learning about people and porpoises and grow our collaboration both locally in Hong Kong and regionally in Asia. I’m hoping that, with your support, we can continue this on-the-ground conservation work. We are currently testing this concept in Sarawak, Malaysia focusing on artisanal fisheries and their crossover with Irrawaddy dolphins.

Watch this space.

 

Thanks to funding from Joanna Toole Foundation and WWF Protecting Whales & Dolphins Initiative, WDC was able to fund the purchase of GPS tags and support local fishing community members who participated in this project

Will you help with a donation?

Your gift, whether large or small, will help fund projects like this wherever the need is greatest.

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC