Is Rio’s Guiana Dolphin the Next Vaquita? A Moment of Hope in Brazilian Prosecutors’ Fight to Save an Icon

As we have mentioned several times in the past, the iconic Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, may soon disappear from Rio’s waters.  The region’s two populations — in Guanabara Bay and Sepetiba Bay, respectively — are on a collision course with extirpation.

Since 2003, Rio’s Guiana dolphin numbers have dropped precipitously.  Nearly 10 Guiana dolphins are killed every month in fishing nets in Sepetiba Bay.  A decade ago, Septebia Bay was home to some 2,000 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800 remaining, and the Guiana dolphin may become a memory in just a few short years.

Additional threats include pollution, depletion of prey and habitat, ship traffic, port development and other coastal impacts.

“What we are fighting for here is to ensure that the Guiana dolphin doesn’t go the way of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise –- a species moments away from extinction due to some of the same threats,” explained Sea Shepherd Legal’s Executive Director, Catherine Pruett. Scientists recently concluded that just 60 vaquita are left.  (For information on Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s latest efforts to protect the vaquita, click here.)

The good news:  Brazilian prosecutors have shown that they are willing and able to bring the fight to the illegal fishermen who are pushing the Guiana dolphin to the brink.

Early this week, the Ministério Público Federal for the State of Rio de Janeiro (Ministério Público) filed 15 civil actions against a total of 31 defendants for illegal, industrial-scale fishing in Sepetiba Bay.  The Ministério Público is a body of independent public prosecutors in Brazil.  Although technically a part of the executive branch, federal prosecutors in Brazil form an independent institution.  Thus, unlike the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Attorneys, government officers subject to presidential appointment and removal, prosecutors within the Ministério Public are not beholden to such clear political control.

This latest series of filings is part of the Ministério Público’s broader campaign to crack down on illegal activity harming the Guiana dolphin.  Thanks to one of our Brazilian colleagues, we were able to translate the official press release into English.  The translated document is available here: baia-de-sepetiba.  The original (in Portuguese) can be accessed here.

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As the press release explains, one of the major culprits is purse-seining for “bait fish” (e.g., sardines), which are then used to catch tuna.  Given the sensitive coastal environment and presence of the boto-cinza, fishing with purse seines has been illegal in Sepetiba Bay since 1993.  But in the absence of adequate enforcement, it still occurs.

We are happy to see Brazil’s prosecutors doing their part to confront this existential threat.  The Ministério Público clearly understands the gravity of the situation, observing as follows:  “If the percentage of mortality remains high, the species is expected to disappear from Sepetiba Bay in eight years.”

In many nations — certainly in the U.S. — federal prosecutors are loathe to call out the federal government for contributing to an environmental problem.  The Ministério Público’s willlingness to do so is especially encouraging.

In this case, the offending vessels have actually benefited from government largess in the form of diesel subsidies.  The Ministério Público makes no bones about it:  These subsidies must stop, and they must stop now.  Federal prosecutor Monique Checker strikes to the heart of the matter:  “If the Union [the government of Brazil] financially helps environmental offenders, it is itself participating in the criminal practice.”

Well said, Monique.  We stand firmly with you.

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