Response to GMA’s News Story on Irrawaddy Dolphins

I wrote this as a response for a listserv that sent out this link:

This article highlights a critically endangered subpopulation of Irrawaddy dolphins in Malampaya Sound, Palawan, the Philippines.  This subpopulation was discovered to science in 1999, by Dr. Louella Dolar (Tropical Marine Research for Conservation, and adjunct faculty at Silliman University) and colleagues.  Since then, WWF-Philippines has been the major player in conservation-related research and outreach about these dolphins and the marine ecosystem of Malampaya Sound.   However, since 2007, funding has been scarce for their work on Irrawaddy dolphin conservation.  They are currently trying to raise resources to resume dedicated work on the management of Malampaya Sound’s fisheries and protected species; the outreach activity described in this news story is a part of that effort.

Bringing attention to the conservation situation in Malampaya Sound has potential beyond fund-raising.  Irrawaddy dolphins are not a well-known species, and Malampaya Sound is a remote site with which the general public is unfamiliar.  Linking the public to conservation at Malampaya Sound, through the use of a charismatic flagship species, could serve to bring wider attention to a site that is essentially neglected by the management bodies responsible for its protection.

However, the news story’s quotes from WWF representatives included a number of factual errors.  The number of dolphins remaining has not been assessed since 2005, and at that point, the best estimate was in the neighborhood of 60-70 dolphins (with wide margins of error).  The number of dolphins accidentally caught in fishing gear has not been assessed in any rigorous manner since 2007.  Dynamite fishing occurs only on the very edge of the dolphins’ range (and is actually very rare at this site), and though fish pens certainly alter their habitat, they are very unlikely to be the main cause of the dolphins’ decline.  Rather, the ropes of crab pots and gillnets used for catching crabs are the most commonly implicated gear in Irrawaddy dolphin bycatch in Malampaya, which is the main direct threat to this subpopulation.

These errors indicate a lack of communication within the organization; WWF-Philippines’ expert on Malampaya Sound, Marivic Matillano, was apparently not a part of this news release, though she is clearly the most appropriate spokesperson for this initiative (she has since sent an email about this story, with corrections).

Additionally, the question is raised: how important is it for outreach activities to contain accurate information?  It’s also worth exploring the idea that the public can and should understand scientific uncertainty.   Engaging the public in the abstract idea of “conservation” or “saving the dolphins” does not necessarily require correct figures.  However, “revealing” that researchers have counted up an “exact” 42 dolphins makes such research seem more conclusive than it is.

In fact, at such small population numbers, the uncertainty of population estimates can be quite high, and tracking trends in population numbers is thus extremely challenging.  What if the next news story says, “New estimate shows there are now 75 dolphins in Malampaya Sound”?  That suggests recovery, when in fact the numbers may have not changed at all, or could have even declined.

On another level, improved presentation of facts is needed to properly engage the public in more specific, complex issues; e.g., moving beyond emotional rhetoric about just “saving the dolphins”, and addressing the needs of the humans who are impacting the dolphins.  A better understanding of these “bigger picture” ideas of conservation could direct public sentiment and pressure into a more productive pathway for facilitating needed change in how resources are managed and protected.  And this is why the mistakes made in this news release regarding threats to the dolphins concerns me.