Wednesday 5 October 2016

Open letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries, re live capture of marine wildlife

Dr Simon Elwen
Namibian Dolphin Project
Walvis Bay Waterfront
PO Box 5209 Walvis Bay

29 September 2016

To: The Permanent Secretary,
Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Request to deny permission to capture live dolphins, penguins and seals in Namibia

Dear Dr Maurihungirire 

We are writing to you on behalf of the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP) and our sister organisation, Sea Search, to voice our concerns over the recent proposal from the Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research Pty Ltd (WAWSR) concerning the live capture of marine animals in Namibia for the aquarium industry. We strongly urge you to reject this proposal and not allow the capture of any marine animals for reasons detailed below.

Scientific Merit

WAWSR claims that the main purpose of this proposal is to “promote scientific research” and help Namibia gather information on the impact marine mammals have on the Namibian fish stocks. Given the wording of this proposal, and indeed the company name, one would expect that this proposal would be based on sound scientific evidence; however, nothing in this proposal would suggest that this is the case. For example, WAWSR proposes to capture 50-100* Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, a species which does not occur anywhere near Namibia (their range being to the east of Cape Town, South Africa (Findlay et al. 1992). WAWSR also proposes to capture 50-100 common bottlenose dolphins, which are resident in Namibia. However, the inshore population, which logistically would be the only realistic option for capture, numbers fewer than 100 individuals (NDP unpublished data), making them one of Namibia's rarest mammal species. If WAWSR capture the upper limit of their proposed number (100), it would effectively wipe out this entire population of animals. Even if they were to capture the lower limit (50), it would likely have dire consequences for an already small and sensitive population, possibly resulting in local extinction of this species from coastal Namibia. It is clear that this proposal has little or no scientific foundation, and therefore to suggest that this is for anything other than making profit, is irrational.

International Legislation

We believe that the proposal directly contravenes the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The African penguin, which WAWSR proposes to capture between 300-500 of, is listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as “Endangered”, with estimates suggesting that it has decreased by more than 60% over the last 28 years. WAWSR also propose to capture “various sharks”, given that the IUCN suggest that one quarter of all known species are threatened by extinction, it is highly plausible that some of the species WAWSR propose to capture, are included in this listing. The other animals listed by WAWSR, such as Heaviside's dolphins and killer whale are listed by the IUCN as "data deficient", and in such scenarios a precautionary principal should be taken as there is little or no information on population abundance or trends

Captive Cetacean Industry

The argument against keeping marine mammals in captivity for educational purposes has gained a lot of support in recent years from the scientific literature. Killer whales, of which WAWSR have proposed to capture 10 per year, have been shown to live shorter lives in captivity compared to their wild counter parts (Jett and Ventre 2015) and often face poor cramped conditions, while Fair et al. (2014) suggested the increase in stress levels induced during live capture could have major negative consequences on individual cetaceans. Additionally, there is little strength to the argument that captive animals provide unique opportunities for research as the vast majority of scientific literature on cetaceans in the last 10 years at least has come from studying animals in the wild, something the NDP has been doing in Namibia since 2008.

Whales and dolphins have long term, individual based relationships and learn behaviours though cultural transmission.  The random removal of individuals can break up these long lasting associations influencing the cohesion of the remaining wild population. The removal of animals can be incredibly stressful for the remaining group associates and could reduce the overall health and fitness of the wild population.
SE_digital signature
Should you need any further information on the whales and dolphins of Namibia, our work specifically, or wish to discuss any of the concerns highlighted, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Simon Elwen, Director - Namibian Dolphin Project, Director Sea Search Africa
NRF Research Fellow, Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria

on behalf of the Namibian Dolphin Project & Sea Search teams
Dr Tess Gridley, Dr Els Vermeulen, Ms Bridget James, Ms Morgan Martin and Mr Barry Mc Govern


Fair, P.A., Schaefer, A.A., Romano, T.A., Bossart, G.D., Lamb, S.V. and Reif, J.  (2014) Stress response of wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) during capture–release health assessment studies  Original Research Article. General and Comparative Endocrinology. 206 203-212 

Findlay, K. P., Best, P. B., Ross, G. J. B., & Cockcroft, V. G. (1992). The distribution of small odontocete cetaceans off the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. South African Journal of Marine Science. 12(1), 237-270.

Jett, J. and Ventre, J. (2015) Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival. Marine Mammal Science. 31 4 1362-1377.

*It is not clear from the poor wording of the proposal whether killer whales are the only species to be targeted in subsequent years “10 killer whales per year; 50-100 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins; 50-100 heads of Common bottlenose dolphins; 500-1000 Cape fur seals; 300-500 penguins; and various sharks.”. As such, we have drafted this letter using the more conservative idea that they do not intend to target all other species in subsequent years. However, it is highly likely that WAWSR do intend to capture all species in subsequent years.

Tuesday 16 August 2016

An insight into the world of science...

By Peggy Liebig - NDP Intern Jun-Jul 2016

My 6 week internship with the NDP started with a couple days of theoretical presentations about what we are going to work on for the next 6 weeks. Each week had a different theme which we were learning the theory and practice about. Then we got to work...

Each day two of the four interns would get on the boat in the morning (weather dependent, unfortunately the weather was really bad the time we were there) while the other two stayed in the office to do Photo-ID. When coming back from the boat we entered the collected data into the spreadsheets. Also there would be one of us going on a tour boat to gain some additional opportunistic data and how the tour boats are interacting with dolphins and seals.
We also did a bird survey almost every day to count the different species of birds in the lagoon.

The first weeks theme was Photo-ID. That were also the first days on our research boat Nanuuq. That time we spend with Dr. Simon Elwen and learnt a lot how to take the best pictures of dorsal fins on the boat and how to identify the different individuals. With that data it is possible to get an abundance estimate for the bottlenose population in Walvis Bay. Bridget showed us later in the internship how to do that in R and Mark.  

The second week was all about behavior. We did a scan sampling on the boat with the dolphins but also practiced some other methods on shore with flamingos. Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to pay as much attention to that topic as to the first weeks theme.

Boat work was the theme of the third week. That’s when we learnt to tie knots, skipper a boat, to deploy moorings with C-PODS and how to shoot a crossbow for biopsy purposes. At the end of the week we had a quiz night to test our knowledge in the categories knots, boat parts, navigation and behaviour.

For the fourth week Dr. Tess Gridley came up to Namibia to teach us about acoustics. She gave us a little task were we had different signature whistles and we had to categorize them. The second day we started to get familiar with the software Raven and became a sound file with whistles where we had to get some measurements like highest/lowest frequency, time and peak power. The fifth week was all about strandings. We did a strandings survey along the beach where each of us was allowed to practice some sand driving. Furthermore we prepared a debate for and against human impact on strandings.

This internship really helps you to understand how a field research is conducted. Although you do not have the time to get into every detail as deep as you would like, everyone on this project was keen to help us understand the different techniques, show us specifically what we were interested in and of course also how to have a good time in Namibia.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

My Road to Namibia

By Jeff Hemphill - NDP Intern 2016 Jun.
From countless days being spent on the water fishing to the sun soaked days drinking cold beer on the white sand beaches of Florida, I have grown a strong passion for marine wildlife and the environment in which it inhabits. When I arrived at university I seemingly ignored this passion and began my path to engineering, because of course that’s where all the money is. Soon after I realized I had gone the wrong direction and switched over to something a little more comfortable in Environmental Science. This door opened up a world of opportunities and I began looking into internships to further my path and see where it could take me. Towards the end of 2015 I happened to come across a few opportunities on a conservation website and figured I’d go ahead and see if I could land one. The Namibian Dolphin Project happened to email me back with a return email saying that they’d love to have me join their cetacean research team. This kind of threw me off though. My ignorance of Africa immediately kicked in and I became utterly confused as to where in the world I had just applied to go. After a few months of preparation, excitement, and 48 hours of flying I found myself landing in the middle of an African desert to be filed into a hut of an airport. The thoughts started popping into my head of what in the heck did I just get myself into?

Soon after getting settled into the cottage I realized my ideology of Africa was completely wrong. The views from the back porch were of a beautiful lagoon teeming with wildlife. The only thing that really puzzled me was the weather. Was I in Walvis Bay, Namibia? Or Seattle, Washington? Thank goodness I brought my winter clothes (basically every jacket I own). The first week we unfortunately couldn’t get on the water due to the high winds and misty mornings, but soon after being trained and getting some formal background we were finally able to get some good research in. Boat days consisted of early, cold mornings waiting or the mist to clear, but once it did we got to see some amazing things.

My first boat day I was absolutely amazed with the high jumping Heaviside’s Dolphins. We just happened to catch them at a time when they were full of energy and doing some awesome tricks (not so easy to photo ID). A few boat days had gone by and they kept promising that bottlenose would be around soon, but I seemed to be having no luck. Until my first encounter came about. This happened to be another extremely impressive day where the bottlenose were very energetic and fortunately not only did I get some good photo ID, but also got some really cool jumping pictures. These guys were not like the smaller cousins in the Florida panhandle. They were huge! I was blown away by the size of them, especially when they would jump right next to the boat.

From this internship I gained a lot of very useful knowledge and research experience. The team members here taught me the basic techniques of photo identification, some in depth acoustics data interpretation, as well as some boat and life skills. A huge thanks to everyone for being patient and very helpful with us interns and giving us some ground to get our careers under our feet!   

Jeff taking some photos of dolphins in Namibia

A wonderful unexpected journey

By Simone Fick

Travelling to Namibia I had no idea what was in store for me. Even though it’s not so far from home, I had never been there, so it was going to be a whole new experience. When you hear about Namibia, you think desert, lots of sand and hot days, but I was greeted with so much more! Misty mornings and the Moon landscape, Sossusvlei with canyons, Naukluft Nature reserve with waterfalls and green mountain trails, and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of everything this beautiful country has to offer. One other big thing that made this journey amazing was the people in the community and the project. I travel around a lot and constantly meet new people and the small communities always amaze me. Almost everyone is friendly and willing to help which really contributes to your experience, whether it be canoeing with seals, driving through the dunes, joining the wildlife cruises to collect data tour boats and travelling on a glassy ocean while working.

Even though I’ve worked previously on projects with marine mammals, there’s always something new to learn. If it’s your first project and you’re lucky enough to do it with the Namibian DolphinProject, I would say it’s an excellent choice. They teach you the valuable skills used in the industry and it definitely is a life changing experience. Early, misty morning starts for boat launches to find the Heaviside’s and Bottlenose dolphins, collecting photo-ID and behavioural data, the odd penguin or Mola mola showing itself now and again, seals providing entertainment every day and if you’re in the right season, whales! You come to love photo ID matching and to see how individuals change over the years. You might have to save a seal or dolphin now and again, where you can feel the difference you make by saving that animals life! All this research makes a difference to animals and nature, and you can be a part of it. Again, these are just a few of the many wonderful things you can learn, skills you build up and life changing experiences you get from joining the project.

I can honestly say it was an unexpected wonderful journey, made possible by people with the same love for animals and science. Some of the team members I only know from friendly emails and then Barry, the only Irish I know in Walvis Bay, who showed me all they do and how to do it, thank you for the skills and memories. I hope to work with this Project in the future again.

Sunday 24 April 2016

Adventures in Luderitz! Morgan Martin

Greetings from Luderitz!

We’ve been making our way around the tiny town of Luderitz this week getting to know the locals and their way of life. I keep hearing the term ‘Buchter’ being used to describe the locals here. I looked it up and found a very fitting description:
Deep, deep in the south of Namibia, there lies a town nestled amongst the windswept boulders of the rugged coastline. The town and people are known by many names. Some call it Olindiri, some call it Okakoverua, some simply call it Lüderitz, but the name the inhabitants of that town affectionately use is the Bucht. Themselves, they call Buchters. I want to explain exactly what we mean when we say we are Bucthers and why we Buchters are proud to be called Buchters: “A Lüderitzbuchter or Buchter” is not just someone born in Lüderitz. The name Buchter defines a very special group of people who enjoy life to the fullest. There is an expression for Lüderitz and its people, “The Bucht tires you!” because we can never get enough of talking, of laughing and of having a good time.”
So needless to say, we’ve been doing our best to fit in as Buchters and keep a low prolife as the newbies around town. Can’t say that it’s working…it seems like we are approached everyday by new people wanting to know why we are here and what’s with the kayak strapped to the roof of the Jeep. In Luderitz, your car is your calling card. Everyone knows you by what you drive, so we have been adequately titled ‘the people with the kayak’.

We are staying in an igloo made of wood on top of a large rock overlooking the harbor. We are renting from Mr. Heiko Metzger and his lovely wife, Diane. They have three dogs that enjoy paying visits to our flat. The newest addition to the family is Dex, a Malamut/Husky mix. Dex doesn’t know how big he really is and enjoys a good cuddle just like most of us.

This week we were fortunate to be given a tour of the harbor and local bays where I will be collecting data. Heiko owns a catamaran tour boat and brought us out for a morning trip to see the local Heaviside’s dolphins and an African penguin colony. The water is a beautiful green-blue color out here, teaming with life in every direction. I have truly landed in a rather unstudied marine biology mecca. I can’t wait to start collecting data on the dolphins out here! We were also fortunate to have been given a tour of the local Heaviside’s dolphins hotspots in the bays surrounding town. Jean-Paul Roux is our scientist contact in Luderitz. He works for the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources in town and has been a native Buchter for 30 years. He drives the 25-minute commute to the bays each morning to go observe the dolphins and sea birds. A truly dedicated scientist and one of the more brilliant I’ve met. I am looking forward to collaborating with him over the next few weeks.

Keep in touch!