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.

Brazilian Prosecutors Fight to Save the Guiana Dolphin

The Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, is a symbol of Rio de Janeiro — literally.  The city flag features a pair of red, stylized Guiana dolphins cradling Rio’s coat of arms.

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Rio’s flag. Credit: Google Images.

 

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Guiana dolphins (a.k.a. boto-cinza). Credit: Google Images.

Federal prosecutors in Brazil are fighting to make sure this species remains more than just an image on a flag.  Like so many cetaceans, the Guiana dolphin is under siege from multiple angles, absorbing attacks from overfishing (depleting the dolphins’ source of food), by-catch, and habitat modification.  The coastal Guiana dolphin (there is also a freshwater variant) is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).  Its listing in Appendix II signifies that it has an unfavourable conservation status and would benefit significantly from international co-operation.  This determination is echoed in Brazlian wildlife law, where the dolphin is listed as “vulnerable.”

On February 10, the Brazilian federal prosecutors’ office (Federal Prosecution Service or Ministério Público Federal, in Portuguese) issued a document detailing the critical state of affairs and requesting immediate action by public and private actors.

In coordination with the prosecutors’ office, Sea Shepherd Legal has agreed to disseminate this document and its central message:  Absent significant and rapid change, the Guiana dolphin could well disappear from the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region in southern Rio de Janeiro.  (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a link to the document, in Portuguese.)

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Map of the state of Rio de Janeiro, with Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande in the lower left-hand corner, near the border with Sao Paulo. Credit: Google Images.

The highest number of Guiana dolphins registered in Brazil — and in the world — is found between the cities of Itaguai, Mangaratiba, and Angra dos Reis, all three of which hug the Baia de Sepetiba.

Yet, as the Ministério Público Federal explains, the Guiana dolphins in Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande have been decimated in recent years.   In 2002/2003, a population study identified approximately 1,300 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800   That’s a drop of roughly 40% in just over a decade.

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Percentage of carcasses recovered in Baia de Sepetiba, by year (2005-2015).                      Credit: Instituto Boto Cinza.

 

Why is the local population crashing?  The causes are manifold.  Here are a few of the more important factors (per the Ministério Público Federal):

  • Overfishing of prey species
  • Incidental capture (by both commercial and artisanal fishermen)
  • Pollution
  • Decreased habitat
  • Increased boat traffic
  • Port development
  • Other industrial and urban development in coastal regions

The combined harm from all these sources has produced a scenario where the Guiana dolphin may be entirely wiped out from Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande — and all of Rio state — in ten years’ time.

As this list of factors suggests, this truly is a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario for the dolphins.  But some cuts go deeper than others — and, perhaps ironically, some of the deepest cuts also seem to be the most preventable.  For instance, the federal government plans to double the size of the channel that runs through the heart of the dolphins’ habitat in Baia de Sepetiba.  Vessel traffic will double from approximately 1,800 vessels per year to 3,600 vessels per year.  The vessel traffic displaces dolphins, which then die in fishing nets.  The noise interferes with echolocation.  And this is to say nothing of the harm produced by dredging and explosions associated with the project in the first instance.

As bad as that is, the harm is compounded by the activities of artisanal, commercial, and illegal fishing operations, mainly targeting tuna.  The increased vessel traffic through the channel is displacing dolphins and fisherman, corralling them into a smaller region.  This has resulted in increased human-dolphin interactions and extremely high by-catch and mortality.

What’s more, according to the federal prosecutors’ office, fisheries enforcement in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region is “practically zero.”  Even if the vessel traffic remained constant, effective fisheries enforcement could at least reduce by-catch by limiting illegal fishing, fishing with prohibited gear, and so forth.  As is, the token enforcement efforts have not reduced dolphin mortality one bit.

Besides all this, there are slews of vessels that anchor right in the middle of the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration. This is yet one more controllable factor that is displacing the dolphins toward fishing nets, toward death.

All this bad news notwithstanding, there is reason for hope.  The federal prosecutors’ office has made this issue a priority and is putting pressure on the major players — public and private alike — to avert disaster.  Among other measures, the prosecutors’ office is calling for:

(1) The creation of a coalition police force to monitor and respond to illegal and excessive fishing, with mandatory patrols in the bay every week.

(2) The preparation of a technical study by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to verify the need for changes in fishing practices and regulations in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region.

(3) The formation of a new group under the auspices of the State Environmental Institute (INEA) — the primary body involved in project licensing in the bay — with the task of reassessing mitigation measures to improve conditions for conservation.  To add credibility to this group, the federal prosecutors have requested the participation of the Instituto Boto Cinza.

(4) The creation of a new plan by INEA to promote community-based tourism as an alternative source of income for local fishermen.

(5) The immediate cessation of any additional licensing by INEA that could cause harm to the dolphins and their habitat, pending additional scientific study.

(6) The prohibition, by the port authority in Rio de Janeiro, of anchoring in the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration.

The prosecutors’ office has given the relevant public authorities 10 days to respond to its report and recommendations for policy changes.  We will be following the story and will keep our readers abreast of important developments.

In closing, we congratulate the Ministério Público Federal for its brave and important efforts to save these beautiful creatures.   Sea Shepherd Legal looks forward to assisting this campaign in any way it can.  Keep up the good fight!

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Link to document from Brazil’s Ministério Público Federal: Recomendação 5-2016 – diversas autoridades – Boto-Cinza – IC 153-2014-17

From Panama to the Netherlands – Sea Shepherd Legal on the Global Campaign Trail

Sea Shepherd Legal spent the past month on the campaign trail forging relationships with officials globally to protect marine wildlife and habitats.  These in-person meetings set the stage for a great start to 2016.  Here are a few of the highlights:

RESOUNDING SUCCESS IN PANAMA

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In November, SSL arrived in Panama for the Seventh Annual Congress of the Red Latinoamericana de Ministerio Público Ambiental (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or “the Red”).  The Red is a forum through which 300+ state and federal environmental prosecutors across Latin America share ideas and collaborate regarding effective methods to combat environmental crimes ranging from illegal logging to wildlife trafficking.

SSL’s goal in attending was to highlight the plight of the oceans and the critical need to develop and enforce marine protective laws throughout the region.  We received an overwhelmingly positive response, reflected in (1) an official declaration stating that Red is dedicated to working with SSL; and (2) the establishment of a marine subcommittee to help facilitate immediate and active collaboration between Red and SSL.

COALITION-BUILDING IN STRASBOURG, FRANCE

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SSL participated as an official observer at the annual meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention).  The meeting was held at the Council of Europe’s Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg.

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Attending this meeting was key to SSL’s effort to leverage the Bern Convention to protect pilot whales and other small cetaceans.  These creatures are being brutally slaughtered each year in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.  Pilot whales are listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention.  As such, state parties, like Denmark, are required to heed the Convention’s prohibition against “all forms of . . . deliberate killing.”

Although Denmark entered a reservation to except the Faroes from the Convention’s reach, it is SSL’s position that the slaughter in the Faroes is nevertheless illegal.  Without a doubt, Denmark’s participation in the slaughter most certainly violates the Convention.  Toward that end, SSL met with representatives of multiple European Union member states and other Standing Committee members, garnering support for an action against Denmark.

KEEPING OCEANS ON THE COP 21 AGENDA IN PARIS

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Following the meeting in Strasbourg, SSL headed west to attend Oceans Day and other events at COP 21 in Paris.  We were both pleased and disappointed by what we experienced.

The primary event we attended was Oceans Day – a forum designed “to advance the oceans and climate change agenda at COP 21 and beyond.”  We listened to multiple world leaders speak about how climate change impacts our oceans, livelihoods and small island states.  Some leaders, including the Prince of Monaco and President of Palau, provided examples of efforts underway to mitigate these impacts.  We were pleased by the awareness, but were disappointed by the following glaring incongruities:

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk  .  .  .

Again, this was the OCEANS DAY forum.  So, what are some of the biggest threats to ocean health?  Climate change, overfishing, and plastics pollution.  Yet, what did the event organizers serve to the participants?

  • Plastic water bottles and plastic cups!  Not only does the production of plastic exacerbate global warming, but a huge amount of plastics from water bottles end up in our oceans.  With 200+ attendees at Ocean Day (not to mention the 40,000+ attendees at COP 21 as a whole, who also were served plastic), just imagine the potential impact.

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Stats at a glance: Meeting the annual demand for bottled water in the United States alone requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.  Less than ¼ of plastic water bottles are ever recycled.  Notably, the recycling process also produces greenhouse gases. Why use them?  Why serve them?    

  • Fish and chips!   This is not a joke.  Fish and chips were top menu items for purchase at the Oceans Day event.  It seems obvious that If we want to protect our oceans, we need to decrease demand.  Decreasing demand on our oceans was never mentioned at the Oceans Day event.

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Stats at a glance: Marine fisheries are collapsing around the world.  Approximately 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited, or in recovery from exploitation.  Scientists warn that we may be the last generation to harvest wild-caught fish in significant numbers. Despite these trends, global demand for fish continues to rise, with per-capita consumption now four times higher than it was in 1950.

  • Hamburgers and sliced meats!  Hamburgers were one of the first things to sell out at the Ocean’s Day café, while complimentary samplings of salami and other sliced meats were passed around to registered participants (to go along with wine served in plastic cups).  Surely, everyone knows by now that the production of livestock contributes significantly to climate change. 

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Stats at a glace: It is estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.  Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – per day.  Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050.

SSL commends the organizers of COP 21 for focusing an entire day on oceans, and for using sustainable products in some aspects of the Paris climate summit.  In the future, we hope to work with organizers to ensure that events we attend are planned in a mindful manner that lessens the impact on marine wildlife and environments.

Oceans- Deserving of a full-day forum, yet merely a passing thought in the final climate agreement 

At COP 21, SSL pushed for due respect for oceans in the new climate agreement.  The agreement took on multiple iterations throughout its development – many of which failed to even include the word “oceans.”  This despite the fact that the world’s oceans provide 50% of our oxygen and absorb 1/3 of our CO2 emissions.  Concerned about the progress of the agreement, SSL circulated an emergency petition to ensure that oceans remain a focus of the landmark agreement.

Ultimately, the word “oceans” at least made it in the preamble, where the Parties “not[ed] the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, . . . when taking action to address climate change[.]”

As a colleague reminds us, “the word game is the long game.”  Even if oceans are not included in the operative provisions of the agreement, the preambular language is meaningful and pregnant with potential.  SSL will do everything it can to make the most of this clause.

COLLABORATING WITH OUR SEA SHEPHERD COMRADES IN THE NETHERLANDS

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Our trip would not have been complete without a campaign trail stop at the Sea Shepherd Global headquarters in Amsterdam.  SSL is dedicated to upholding the overarching mission of Sea Shepherd to “end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”

SSL is developing multiple legal campaigns that complement the amazing work of the superheroes at Sea Shepherd Global.  Together, we look forward to a strong and successful 2016!   Stay tuned for future blogs and publications.

Please donate to support our work to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems – visit our secure donation link at www.seashepherdlegal.org.  

Sea Shepherd Legal Co-Sponsoring 2015 Latin American Prosecutors Congress in Panama

Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) is delighted to announce that, together with the United Nations Environment Programme, it is co-sponsoring this year’s annual Congress for the Red Latinoamericana de los Ministerios Públicos Ambientales (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or the RED).

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The RED is a cross-border collaborative of prosecutors fighting environmental crimes throughout Latin America.  The annual Congress is an opportunity for these prosecutors to share initiatives and ideas for enforcement and improvement of environmental laws.  SSL is honored to participate in this year’s RED Congress.  While there, we will present details about SSL’s work, and what role SSL can play in a concerted regulatory effort to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems within the region.  As part of this initiative, SSL is also working with the RED to form a subcommittee of prosecutors interested in focusing efforts on marine wildlife crimes and the protection of marine environments.

Help fund this project!

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Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) tiene el gran honor de poder anunciar que, junto con el Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente, vamos a copatrocinar el Congreso de este año para la Red Latinoamericana de los Ministerios Públicos Ambientales (La RED).

La RED es una colaboración transfronteriza de los fiscales que luchan contra delitos ambientales en toda América Latina. El Congreso anual es una oportunidad para estos fiscales de compartir iniciativas e ideas para mejorar el derecho ambiental y su aplicación.  SSL tiene el honor de participar en el Congreso RED de este año. Una vez allí, vamos a presentar detalles sobre el trabajo de SSL, y qué papel podemos jugar para proteger la vida silvestre y los ecosistemas marinos de la region mediante el derecho y la regulacion.  Como parte de esta iniciativa, SSL también está trabajando con la RED para formar un subcomité de fiscales interesados en concentrar los esfuerzos en los crímenes de la fauna marina y la protección de los ambientes marinos.

SSL Staff Named Members of IUCN’s World Commission on Environmental Law

Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) is pleased to announce that Legal Director and Executive Director are now members of the World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL).  The WCEL is a network of environmental law and policy experts from all regions of the world who volunteer their knowledge and services to IUCN activities, especially to those of the IUCN Law Programme. WCEL functions as an integral part of the IUCN Environmental Law Programme, which includes the Commission and the Environmental Law Centre.

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SSL plans to work with IUCN institutes and individual members to improve domestic and international law on marine wildlife and habitat.  This will build on our current efforts in Latin America.

Support our efforts here.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.