Empowering local fishing communities to conserve coastal dolphins in Congo

The Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii) is endemic to tropical and sub-tropical near-shore waters of western Africa, with an assumed historic range between southern Morocco and central Angola. Current evidence suggests that remaining animals are limited to 8 or 9 sub-populations in 9 African states with limited or no connectivity between them. Current estimates of population size suggest that none of the remaining sub-populations exceeds a few hundred animals (Van Waerebeek & Perrin 2007). The species occupies an obligate, inshore, shallow-water niche, including some large estuaries and mangrove systems, and it is probable that the species was never abundant. While there are no published estimates of their current abundance, available evidence suggests a precipitous decline in numbers across the range, a highly fragmented distribution and many documented threats. Catches by fishermen (both targeted and accidental), habitat loss and anthropogenic disturbance are considered the principal factors responsible for the species’ decline. Given a general absence of effective monitoring and law enforcement, long-term, range-wide prospects for the species are grim and their fate is of enormous conservation concern (Weir et al 2011). Without immediate, sustained and effective conservation measures the species risks extirpation in many areas. Human population densities are extremely low in Gabon and Congo, and coasts here may represent one of the last great hopes for this species. These waters are one of only two places (the other being Senegal-Gambia) where the species is known to move between countries.

The species has been the subject of extensive discussions by IUCN, CMS and the IWC. The IUCN CSG (Cetacean Specialist Group) appropriately tagged S. teuszii as a “high priority for research and conservation because of its restricted range, narrow ecological niche, generally low abundance, and continuing threats” (Reeves et al., 2003). Their Red-List status was last reviewed in 2008 and amended from Data Deficient to Vulnerable; in 2010 the IWC Scientific Committee recommended a revision of this status to Endangered. At the ninth Conference of the Parties, CMS member states voted to include Sousa teuszii on CMS Appendix 1, and the species is central to the regional CMS Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Concerning the Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macaronesia. Associated with this MOU is the SCAP in which the Atlantic humpback dolphin is central. Specific research and conservation needs listed here deliberately echoe those in the 2010 report of the IWC Scientific Committee, which states:

“6.3.6 Conclusions and consideration of status:
The sub-committee agreed that there was ample evidence for serious concern about the conservation status of this species [Sousa teuszii] (SC/62/SM6, SC/62/SM9, SC/62/SM10). Although quantitative data or even good qualitative data (e.g. confirmation of species presence or absence) are lacking for much of the known or suspected range, the information available from areas where cetaceans have been consistently studied (e.g. Ghana, Guinea) indicates that overall population is fragmented, bycatch (if not also directed catch) is occurring, and habitat conditions are deteriorating. Populations in Gabon and northern Congo appear healthy, but recently documented bycatches in Congo may be indicative of a growing reliance on non-fish marine wildlife, including dolphins.”
The species is also listed on lists of integrally protected species in both Gabon and Congo.

In 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) started the 'Atlantic Humpback Dolphin Conservation Project.' Efforts focus on Gabon and Congo, where protected coasts offer hope for the species, and where WCS recently launched the ‘Congo Basin Coast’ program (CBC), a comprehensive conservation project that focuses on the unique assemblage of habitats and species of the Central West African coast. Gabon and Congo include some of the most intact coastal humpback dolphin habitats in West Africa and research suggests that in less disturbed areas (such as within the boundaries of coastal National Parks) the humpback dolphins occur in natural densities. The goal of the project is to conserve healthy and biologically functional populations of humpback and other coastal dolphins (bottlenose dolphin and common dolphin) through active research, outreach and capacity building. Specific project objectives of are to:

• Estimate the abundance humpback dolphins in the CBC and refine scientific methods for robust and cost-effective assessment that can be applied in other areas of the species range;
• Characterise the distribution and habitat preferences of coastal dolphins in the CBC, including identification of critical habitat;
• Assess and mitigate key threats to the long term health of coastal dolphins in the CBC;
• Raise awareness of the species amongst coastal fishermen and limit the takes' of dolphins in coastal gillnets; and
• Train key personnel (including national park and fisheries managers) in research and conservation methodologies.

The project began work in earnest during early 2009 and very quickly identified areas of prime dolphin occurrence. Early successes include the first record of the species in the Republic of Congo and confirmed movement of individuals across the international border with Gabon. This finding, together with high densities of nesting leatherback and olive ridley turtles, led to the bilateral creation of the Park Transfrontaliere de Mayumba-Conkouati, the first transboundary marine protected area (MPA) in Central West Africa and a specific recommendation of the CMS SCAP. Although research for this species has included the coastlines of all coastal protected areas in Gabon and Congo, work has recently focused in Conkouati-Douli NP following the discovery of a series of accidental takes in coastal artisanal fishing nets. A single capture was recorded in 2009, followed by 5 recorded captures in 2011, and another two so far in 2012. These have given sharp focus to our current efforts, and recent work includes direct liaison and outreach with coastal fishing communities in Conkouati, including an assessment of catches, net locations and fishing effort. Given records of reasonably large schools observed in 2007 and 2010, these captures have to be recent. The species is totemic in the local tradition, and deaths require appeasement of ancestors and an elaborate ceremony. The principle causal factor identified is the recent incursion of small trawlers into the national park. These vessels fish indiscriminately, and their area of operation includes inshore waters where they also damage and destroy artisanal nets. The response of artisanal fishers has been to move nets inshore where (we suspect) they capture many more dolphins.

Conservation and other impacts
The Atlantic humpback dolphin is frequently subject to both accidental and directed catch by fishermen throughout its range. A gradual shift from accidental to targeted takes (kills) in West Africa, coincident with declines in fish, is believed the primary factor for the species catastrophic decline in much of its range. The current IUCN Red List status is likely insufficient, and a recommendation by the IWC Scientific Committee to review this status was based on expert opinion provided by workers from remaining range states. The promotion of this species to CMS Appendix 1 at COP 9 also reflects the urgency with which more work is required if the extinction of this species is to be prevented. Targeted work in Gabon and Congo is critical if the populations in these areas are not to suffer the same fate. We believe that this project will have an immediate impact for the conservation of this species in Congolese waters and by extension will also protect dolphins that range into Congo from southern Gabon. Populations in the target area are still recoverable despite recent captures, and artisanal fishing pressure is sufficiently low that sustained outreach and conservation effort (that includes tangible benefits for fishers) can have a lasting benefit.

The project will have ancillary benefits for other small cetaceans such as the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, as well as for marine turtles. Artisanal fishers traditionally set nets some distance from shore (>1km) and as such the risk of capture for humpback dolphins and nesting turtles is low. The release scheme for dolphins will be an extension of a scheme already implemented for turtles, and fishers already understand the mechanism and conservation benefits associated with releases of turtle species.
Recent changes to artisanal fishing behavior have been prompted largely by the inshore incursion of trawlers fishing illegally in the artisanal zone – actions under other grants will provide financing for patrols to be completed by parks authorities in both Congo and Gabon. These patrols will ensure that trawlers fishing illegally within national parks and inshore exclusion zones are both fined and prevented from returning. These patrols will also ensure that mitigation actions promoted under this proposal will not further compromise the security of local fishers or jeopardize their nets. Fishers already recognize that any proposal to reduce dolphin captures is contingent on parks authorities completing patrols. With illegal fishing eliminated from the parks, it is expected that fish captures will also (in time) recover to sustainable levels sufficient to restore catches and associated incomes, thus reducing demand for alternative sources of cash, including dolphin bushmeat.

Objective 1. By the end of 2013, significantly reduce (to near zero) humpback dolphin bycatch in coastal artisanal nets in the waters of Conkouati-Douli National Park, and a limited number of villages to the south, through the active participation of artisanal fishers. ;;; Objective 2. By the end of 2013, and together with local NGOs and Parks authorities, we will significantly increase public awareness of the plight of Atlantic humpback dolphins Congo and generate local support for their conservation amongst local communities.

Description:Developing a cooperative protection scheme amongst fishers for protection of at least the first 500m of the coastal strip (the preferred zone of the humpback dolphin). This activity is innately linked to objective 2 as well.
Start date:01 October 2012
End date:01 December 2013
Responsibility:WCS with COGEREN and MDDEFE
Output:Risks to Atlantic humpback dolphins from nets set inshore are greatly reduced (potentially eliminated) by creation and implementation of an inshore fisheries exclusion zone, with ancillary benefits for marine turtles during the nesting season as well as supporting transboundary conservation efforts.
Description:Developing: a) compensation scheme to help fishermen repair nets damaged when releasing live dolphins; b) incentives scheme for successful dolphin releases, including provision of life-jackets and locally designed dolphin T-shirts.
Start date:01 October 2012
End date:01 December 2013
Responsibility:WCS with COGEREN
Output:Fishermen engaged and highly motivated to release live dolphins independently or through the ‘reaction network’.
Description:Developing a fisher-led reporting and ‘reaction network’ for the cooperative release of dolphins. Cheap portable phones with cameras will ensure that fishers can both record the event (if dolphins are released) or call for help.
Start date:01 October 2012
End date:01 January 2013
Responsibility:WCS with COGEREN
Output:Fishermen ‘reaction network’ consolidated and working efficiently to release live by-caught dolphins.
Description:Developing outreach campaign targeted at local communities, with materials (posters, presentations and t-shirts) tailored to the local culture and socio-economic environment.
Start date:01 February 2013
End date:28 February 2013
Responsibility:COGEREN with WCS
Output:Approximately 1500 local inhabitants participated in outreach campaign. Culturally sensitive outreach toolkit designed and readily available to use in other areas, including other parts of the range.
Description:Organize outreach and training workshops for regional collaborators, teachers (schools, colleges) and relevant ministry staff.
Start date:01 March 2013
End date:01 April 2013
Responsibility:COGEREN with WCS
Output:30 Government officials, 25 teachers, 4 collaborating NGO staff provided with a solid training in conservation isues for the inshore zone, particularly those for endangered species. This will also allow for communication of SCAP, IUCN CSG and IWC recommendations for humpback dolphin conservation.
Description:Partnering with the local NGO COGEREN to develop a class module for marine conservation and to present this at every school within Conkouati Douli National Park (and elsewhere as opportunity allows).
Start date:01 May 2013
End date:01 June 2013
Responsibility:COGEREN and WCS
Output:Educative marine conservation module developed and implemented in local schools.
Description:Organizing a contest for designing the artwork to be printed in save the dolphins T-shirts to be used in an incentives program for artisanal fishermen.
Start date:
End date:
Responsibility:COGEREN and WCS
Output:Locally designed artwork to be used in outreach and incentives innitiatives. 800 children/high school participated in outreach activity.

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Implementing AgencyWildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
Collaborating agenciesMDDEFE (Ministère du Développement Durable, de l'Economie Forestière et de l'Environnement), Republic of Congo. Contact person: Roland Missilou - Conservator of Conkouati Douli National Park - (242)068631764 ; COGEREN (Comité de Gestion des Ressources Naturelles de Conkouati). Contact person: Safou Gilbert Koumba (242)069496864

Activity start dateOctober 2012
Activity end dateDecember 2013
CMS AppendixAppendix I, Appendix II
Taxonomic groupMarine mammals
Target regionEastern Atlantic
West Africa
Target countryDemocratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa), Gabon
Final technical reportNo

Habitat loss and degradation
Human Disturbance
Pollution
Unsustainable fishing and harvesting aquatic resources
Bycatch
Overharvesting