The Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni) was only described as a new species in 2005. Previously these dolphins were thought to be Irrawaddy dolphins, but genetic investigation and a distinctive skull shape proved otherwise.
Very recent genetic studies have confirmed that Australia has a second unique coastal dolphin, the Australian humpback dolphins (Sousa sahulensis) which has been recently found to be different species than the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis).
Knowledge about the biology, ecology, distribution and threats to the Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins is scarce. However, science is indicating that the local populations of both species are very small, and possibly number less than 200 individuals. These populations are highly localised, making them vulnerable to site-specific threats. New information is showing that, for some populations, the loss of just one individual could lead to localised extinctions.
What WWF is doing
WWF-Australia is working with scientists, local communities, Indigenous partners, industry and governments across northern Australia to ensure we learn as much as possible about these vulnerable species and implement workable solutions to protect them. This involves:
• Increasing research and awareness
Since 2008, WWF have worked with a range of partners including Traditional Owners, Indigenous land councils, scientific institutions, and businesses (including ING-DIRECT), to build scientific knowledge and public awareness of Australia’s rare and unique dolphins.
The project has supported survey work in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland to help better understand species, where they live, feed and breed and the threats they face.
• Creating safe havens
Throughout Australia, WWF are working to establish sanctuaries for coastal dolphins as part of a national network of marine parks in Commonwealth and State waters. This includes working in dolphin hotspots such as Roebuck Bay where we are working with local communities and the Western Australian Government to establish sanctuary zones in the soon to be created Roebuck Bay Marine Park. These sanctuary zones will help to protect dolphins from threats such as encroaching coastal development and fishing activity in their critical habitats.
• Improving water quality
Poor water quality in the Great Barrier Reef can be damaging to the health of dolphins and the ecosystems upon which they depend. WWF is working to ban key pesticides that pose unacceptable risks to people and wildlife, and collaborating with farmers to implement practices that improve water quality.
• Improving legal protection
The snubfin dolphin is currently listed as ‘data deficient’ on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act 1999), which means that it is not getting the protection it deserves.
WWF-Australia believes there is a strong case for nominating both the Australian snubfin and Australian humpback dolphins for threatened status and is working to ensure this is achieved.
What you can do to help
• Prevent boat strike: slow down and keep a constant look out, as you never know when marine wildlife will rise to the surface
• Avoid approaching or harassing dolphins in your boat, as they are very sensitive to disturbance
• Dispose of cat waste responsibly: kitty litter may contain a disease called Toxoplasmosis and dumping it down the drain can make dolphins very ill
• Write a letter to your federal and state/territory MP asking for improved legal protection and sanctuaries for the dolphins
• Donate to WWF and ensure that these rare dolphins get the protection they deserve.