The scientists compared the data with the number of fishing events in which a dolphin school is chased by speedboats and encircled in a large "purse-seine" net in order to capture the large yellowfin tuna that often swim with dolphin schools. While such fishing led to high dolphin mortalities after purse-seine fishing was launched in the eastern tropical Pacific in the 1950s, bycatch deaths declined by the end of the 1990s due to new fishing techniques that ensured that dolphins are eventually released from the nets alive.
Yet despite mortality reductions, dolphin populations have not recovered at a rate expected since bycatch was reduced.
Using the aerial photographic database, Cramer and her colleagues found a strong link between the amount of fishing and reproductive output in a given year for the dolphin population most heavily targeted by the fishery, the northeastern pantropical spotted dolphin. Both the proportion of adult animals in the photographs with a calf, and the length at which calves disassociated from their mothers (a measure of the length at which the calves stop nursing), declined with increasing fishing effort.
Together, the results showed that fishing had a negative impact on calf survival rates and/or birth rates. This could be caused when fishing operations separate mothers from their suckling calves, interfere with the conception or gestation of calves or a combination of the two.
"The link between fishing activity and reproductive output indicates that the fishery has population-level effects beyond reported direct kill," the authors write in their report.
What remains unknown is the exact mechanism leading to reduced reproductive output. This question is currently being investigated by researchers at NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.
|Contact: Mario Aguilera or Annie Reisewitz|
University of California - San Diego