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Small cetacean species may not survive another decade warns new landmark publication

14th May 2003

IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland.

A new publication on the status of the world's cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises, offers a stark warning that the smaller, lesser-known species such as the baiji (or Yangtze River dolphin) may not survive the next decade.

Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World's Cetaceans, is an authoritative, benchmark publication providing the latest information on the status of cetaceans worldwide while recommending actions that could help save the most threatened species. As a guiding document for all those involved in cetacean conservation, it will be used by scientists in the field and academic institutions, as well as those making critical decisions about the future of these species and their habitats.

This new publication is the most recent of three Action Plans compiled by the Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG) of IUCN's Species Survival Commission during the past 15 years. The Group has over 75 members worldwide contributing significant experience and expertise to the growing pool of knowledge about cetaceans. This Action Plan provides scientific information about the current status of cetaceans worldwide; identifies threats to their survival and ways to further understand and assess these threats; and recommends specific conservation actions.

With ongoing revision and debate about how they should be classified, there are currently 86 recognised cetacean species. These animals live in a variety of habitats, from the high seas far beyond the national jurisdiction of any country, to the shallow freshwater rivers, lakes and coastal waters of southern Asia and South America. Some species are highly migratory, requiring vast areas of ocean to move between feeding and calving waters, whilst others reside in particular sections of rivers and coastal waters.

"Some of the great whales such as the blue, humpback, sperm and right whales often receive a lot of attention. They are magnificent animals, and certainly important to the CSG's mission. The Group focuses, however, on smaller species, often lesser-known and in developing countries, that are particularly threatened with extinction," says Dr Randall Reeves, Chair of the CSG.

Swimming against extinction

To date, humans have not caused the extinction of any cetacean species. This claim may not hold true for much longer though. According to former CSG Chair, William F. Perrin, "it seems unlikely that the baiji [or Yangtze dolphin, Lipotes vexillifer] will still be around when the next new Action Plan is formulated eight or ten years from now".

The baiji, a freshwater dolphin with its distribution now limited to the main channel of the Yangtze River in China, is considered the most endangered cetacean. From surveys conducted in 1985 and 1986, the total baiji population was guessed to number around 300 animals. Between 1997 and 1999, extensive surveys sighted only 21-23 dolphins. The new Action Plan states that there may be no more than a few tens of Yangtze dolphins in existence.

Of the species/populations that have been assessed against the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species criteria, the baiji, vaquita (Gulf of California porpoise, Phocoena sinus), and several geographical populations of whales and dolphins are categorised as Critically Endangered. Northern Hemisphere right whales (Eubalaena glacialis and E. japonica), the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Hector's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and Ganges/Indus river dolphins (Platanista gangetica) are listed as Endangered. There are others yet to be formally assessed, some of which are known to be in serious danger of extinction.

Threats facing cetaceans

The first Cetacean Action Plan, published in 1988, expanded awareness of not only the great whales (the 14 recognised baleen species and the toothed sperm whale), but also the approximately 70 species of smaller and medium-sized species. In 1994, the second Action Plan emphasised the vulnerability of freshwater and coastal cetacean populations, highlighting their geographically restricted ranges and dependence on resources also used by humans.

Perrin sees a glimmer of conservation success, but notes that urgent action is warranted to deal with the extinction crisis facing particular species and populations. "Some progress has been made, but as the present plan testifies, grave threats to the continued existence of many cetaceans still exist, and some threats are worsening," says Perrin. "Cetacean diversity, like all biodiversity worldwide, is crumbling so we must redouble our efforts," he concludes.

Traditional threats to cetaceans such as the deliberate killing of some species for food and predator control continue. These are increasingly accompanied by additional threats: animals die from entanglement in fishing gear; collisions with powered vessels injure and kill cetaceans; some species are targeted to supply the demand from oceanaria for live animals; changing ecosystem dynamics resulting from either industrial or intensive artisanal fishing may be depleting food sources for some species; activities such as the construction of dams, irrigation infrastructure, and aquaculture facilities degrade habitat; in addition to longstanding concerns about acoustic disturbance, new types of military sonar apparently can cause lethal trauma to deep-diving cetaceans.

Cautious optimism for some populations

Whilst recognising that the status of many cetaceans is worsening and threats to their survival are in many cases increasing, cautious optimism is now being expressed about the effectiveness of past and ongoing conservation actions for some populations of great whales. Right and bowhead whales have been protected from commercial whaling under international law since 1935, gray whales since 1946, and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and blue whales since the mid-1960s. Add to this the continuing worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling which took effect in 1986, and it appears that a lot of work has been done by many individuals over the years to achieve effective conservation measures for cetaceans across the globe.

Despite the fact that many thousands of right, blue, and humpback whales were taken illegally in the Southern Ocean and North Pacific during the 1950s and 1960s (in some cases putting populations of these species in jeopardy), several populations of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), humpbacks in many areas, gray whales in the eastern North Pacific, and blue whales in both the eastern North Pacific and central North Atlantic have begun to show signs of recovery.

Recommendations for action

"Over the past 15 years, it has become clear that, in certain cases, existing scientific evidence is sufficient to justify, or indeed require, immediate action. The CSG therefore decided to include a number of recommendations in this Action Plan that go beyond research; these address specific actions that need to be taken to promote the recovery of species or populations immediately threatened with extinction," says Dr Reeves.

Amongst others in the publication, recommendations include actions to prevent injury to the baiji from snag-line and electric fishing; eliminate fishing methods that take vaquitas as bycatch throughout their range; and for the Hector's dolphin, endemic to New Zealand, increase the size of existing protected areas to include the harbours and bays in the North Island sanctuary, and also extend the offshore boundaries for both sanctuaries.

Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World's Cetaceans is available electronically on the web site in .PDF and can be purchased in hard copy from the IUCN World Conservation Bookstore; Email:; tel: +44 1223 277894; fax +44 1223 277175.

Images to accompany this news release are available here.

For more information contact:

Dr Randall Reeves, Chair, IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group and Action Plan co-author
Tel: +1 450 458 6685 (Canada)
Fax: +1 450 458 7383

Brian Smith - CSG Asia Coordinator and Action Plan co-author
Tel: +66 (76) 383 144 (Thailand)
Email: or

Dr Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara - CSG Deputy Chair, Europe Coordinator, and Action Plan co-author

Anna Knee - Communications Officer - Species Programme
IUCN -The World Conservation Union
Tel: +41 (0)22 9990153
Fax: +41 (0)22 9990015