KARACHI, Jan 4: Led by an expert from the United Kingdom, a Pakistani research team has for the first time identified and recorded the presence of 12 species of marine dolphins and whales in the Sindh-Balochistan waters. The identified species include five dolphin species, one porpoise species, two species of the toothed whale and four species of the baleen whale.

The research results were announced by Dr Mauvis Gore, the head of the team which included Shoaib Kiani, Pervaiz Iqbal, Baber Hussain and Umer Waqas.

The study forms part of the Darwin Initiative Project, ‘Conservation of Pakistan’s marine cetacean biodiversity and pelagic environment’, a collaborative effort with Karachi University’s Centre of Excellence in Marine Biology (CEMB), the World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan and the University Marine Biological Station Millport (UMBSM).

The first phase of the project, which spanned three years, ends in September this year and it is hoped that the study can be extended by another two years.

According to Dr Gore, this was the first baseline study ever carried out on the marine cetaceans found in Pakistan’s waters. “Earlier, there was no recorded information about the various species of marine dolphins and whales found here,” she said, “and the little information that was available was not backed by scientific evidence. The only cetacean ever studied was the Indus blind dolphin which lives in the freshwaters of the lower to middle Indus River, where the fragile population has been protected by the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) and the WWF-Pakistan.”

Dr Gore said that the findings were the result of a team effort and the team was keeping its fingers crossed in terms of obtaining more positive results. “The important thing is that people should know that their coastline and the sea hold a significant number of these wonderful creatures that need to be protected,” she remarked, pointing out that this baseline data would serve as groundwork for further research in Pakistan.

Surveys in near-shore and off-shore waters showed that the bottlenose dolphin, the humpback dolphin, the spinner dolphin, Risso’s dolphin and the killer whale (which is scientifically categorised as a dolphin) occur in moderate numbers in Pakistan’s seas, as does the finless porpoise. A number of whales, including Bryde’s whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, the fin whale, the sperm whale and the well-known hump-backed whale, are also found in Pakistan’s waters. According to Dr Gore, even the presence of the largest of whales, the blue whale, as been recorded. These species are known to occur in Oman, on the other side of the Arabian Sea, and earlier studies had suggested that some of the population may spend part of the year in Pakistani waters.

In Dr Gore’s view, cetaceans are significant since these mammals are key species in the ecosystem. They reflect the number and diversity of fish stocks and are indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

Endangered species

Amongst the most serious threats faced by cetaceans, said Dr Gore, was the release into the sea of heavily-polluted water with traces of heavy metals by the ship-breaking industry. Other threats included falling fish stocks (less food available), the silting of rivers because of dwindling mangrove forests, the growth of toxic algae and the presence of rubbish and plastic bags in the sea which could prove fatal for whales and dolphins as well as turtles. Additionally, deadly collisions with large sea-faring vessels, some fishing practices, seismic surveys and military operations all posed a risk for these species’ survival.

“All cetacean species are endangered,” stated Dr Gore. “Throughout the world, the numbers of whales and dolphins has declined, notwithstanding their popularity. Whales have been over-fished around the globe, including illegally in Pakistani waters by Russian whalers during the 1960s.” The researcher pointed out that although Pakistan’s waters were included in the North Indian Ocean sanctuary that protected whales as part of the global agreement with the International Whaling Commission, this commitment needed to be regularly renewed.

Funded by the UK government’s Department of Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs, the project aims to develop management options and recommendations, thus helping Pakistan fulfil the requirements of the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy. Capacity building is being achieved through training people, including students and fisheries officers, in marine biodiversity through Karachi University’s Centre of Excellence in Marine Biology. Meanwhile, sustainability is being enhanced by holding workshops with the help of WWF-Pakistan for fishermen to help them learn about the issues surrounding cetaceans.

“The Pakistan Whale and Dolphin Society is set to be inaugurated on Saturday [today],” said Dr Gore proudly. “It aims to create awareness about this valuable marine resource. Meanwhile, preparations are also under way to introduce dolphin-watching tourism in Pakistan, for which sites have been selected in Sindh and Balochistan. This eco-tourism will support poor fishermen who are already under stress because of depleting fish resources.”

The project has a multi-organisational advisory panel which includes representatives from Karachi University’s zoology department, the Sindh Wildlife Department, the Marine Fisheries Department, the Zoological Survey Department, the National Institute of Oceanography, the Balochistan Forestry Department and the Pakistan Navy.

Commenting on the effort, Dr Ijaz Ahmed of WWF told Dawn that “marine science is a neglected subject in Pakistan and the relevant information is next to nil. One of the project’s aims is to coordinate all individual efforts and work on a common platform.”

Referring to other initiatives in the field, Mr Ahmed said that WWF was in the process of developing a marine programme for Pakistan. He also referred to the on-going Pakistan Wetlands Programme funded by the Global Environment Facility.

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