Almost ten years ago to the day, Australia discovered it had another one of its very own species of dolphin – the Snubfin. The first dolphin to be recorded in over fifty-six years, the snubfin (or the snubnose if you get a good look at one) is also one of the rarest cetaceans in the world, native only to the Northern Australian waters of WA and Queensland.
Our poor little snubfin was long mistaken for the irrawady dolphin of Southeast Asia, until DNA testing by James Cook University in 2005 at last pronounced it to be a new species in its own right, stubby fins and all.
But, a decade on, the snubfin is still being overlooked.
Despite numbering below 1,000 individuals, this elusive little dolphin has virtually the same amount of legal protection it enjoyed before discovery. Too little research has been collected in the years since, it is claimed, to formally list the species as threatened and galvanise recovery plans.
What we do know about the snubfin is not particularly reassuring. Thanks to a painfully slow reproductive rate, snubfins are especially vulnerable to habitat degradation and human activity. Even the loss of one individual a year could put the entire population at risk.
A 2011 study by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) places the snubfin on track for extinction in as little as three decades unless drastic conservation measures are taken.
New threats from fishing and coal ports
The Aussie snubfin may have survived the last 20,000 years without notice, but now dangerous collisions between dolphins and fishermen are taking their toll. One of the greatest threats currently facing the snubfin is by-catch. As fisheries use ever more invasive measures to plunder Australian waters, dolphins can easily become the catch instead.
The snubfin is particularly at risk from fishing nets thanks to a fondness for frolicking in shallow, coastal waters, such as near coral reefs, rivers and creek mouths. Since their discovery, snubfins have been found injured from boat collisions, drowned in fishing nets, caught in shark control drumlines, and even deliberately killed by fishermen.
Key feeding grounds for the species in the Great Barrier Reef are now under threat from dredging and coal tankers as the federal government tries to rush through approval for six monster coal ports.
The reef’s World Heritage waters have long been home to some of our most diverse – and colourful – marine life, including the snubfin. If such plans go ahead, sediment from dredging up nearby sea floor could not only smother coral systems, but put the entire neighbourhood at risk.
Of particular concern is the Fitzroy River-Keppel Bay sub-population of snubfins who spend much of the year near Balaclava Island in Gladstone and have long been considered critical to the survival of the species. This is now the proposed site for two coal terminals by The Mitchell Group and Xstrata Coal Queensland.
New opportunities for protection
Fortunately, one of Annastacia Palaszczuk’s first acts as Queensland Premier this month was to ban dredge spoil dumping within the marine park and block the privatisation of new coal ports.
While this is great news, the federal Government has this year announced conspicuous plans to conduct a national review into Australia’s marine parks. There are real fears amongst scientists that the review will lead to reductions in overall marine sanctuary areas.
In a new report, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has identified Australia’s most Biologically Important Areas (BIAs) and how they are represented in existing marine parks today. The results are not great, either for snubfins or many other species. Just 2% of all BIAs for the snubfin currently fall under the protection of marine sanctuaries, with only a further 13% found within non-sanctuary marine park areas.
To add insult to injury, until the review’s conclusion, management of all marine parks has been suspended and fishing has resumed as usual.
Despite these grim tidings, the snubfin has been identified as a priority species in the government’s National Dolphin Conservation Plan. Funding has even been promised towards the very research that could see the dolphin finally listed as a threatened species.
Whatever the government’s plans for the snubfin, it will need to act swiftly if this unique dolphin is to continue to call Australia home.