Thursday, November 15, 2007

APEC meeting on the marine environment: time to recognise the value of a dolphin

Effluent flowing into the mouth of the Dadu River, Taichung.

How can coastal industrial development and protection of the coastal environment coexist? This was the one of the main themes addressed at the “8th APEC Roundtable Meeting on the Involvement of the Business/Private Sector in Sustainability of the Marine Environment”, held in Taipei from November 6-8.

A range of presentations by delegates from industry, government and academia highlighted once again the enormous impacts of industrial development on the coastal and marine environment, including a sobering talk by a resident of Tuvalu, an island nation currently experiencing gradual inundation due to the rising sea level. Some contributions also reinforced the call for attention to a few of the threats to Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins Sousa Chinensis identified at the Second International Workshop on Conservation and Research Needs of Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins, Sousa chinensis, in the Waters of Taiwan, held in Changhua County in September this year. Meanwhile, examples of conservation and pollution prevention and response measures were provided by delegates from Hong Kong, Korea, Canada and the Philippines.

One off-the-cuff remark made during a talk by an official from the Construction and Planning Administration about a possible industrial development in Changhua County hinted at yet another project that bodes ill for Taiwan’s humpback dolphins. The proposal for Dacheng Industrial Park, a controversial project for which virtually no information is publicly available, signals the potential arrival of yet another source of pollution to this area (within the humpback dolphins’ confirmed range) as well as meaning bad news for the Dacheng Wetland (also spelt Tacheng), an internationally recognised Important Bird Area (IBA).

Considerable discussion focused on the conservation of the humpback dolphins and other marine mammals. Citing the UN’s designation of 2007 as the “Year of the Dolphin”, participants included in their recommendations to APEC that whale-watching be promoted, that collaborative scientific research be carried out on the stock of cetaceans and that Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin protected areas be established in the APEC region. These recommendations came directly from some of the conclusions of a symposium held in Taichung City in October, which attempted to address some of the issues affecting Taiwan’s humpback dolphins.

The idea of setting up a protected area in which the humpback dolphins of western Taiwan can be free of human interference is certainly attractive – but is Taiwan in a position to do so effectively? While major parts of the dolphins’ range have now been confirmed by scientists, sightings outside of this range and a lack of data for winter distribution suggest that more information would be needed before the dolphins’ entire range and the importance of particular areas for feeding, breeding, calving and other purposes could be determined. If a marine protected area (MPA) for the dolphins were to exclude an area vital to their survival or one which currently forms a passage between two important areas, or to fail to include a buffer zone large enough to protect against the far-reaching impacts of noise pollution, their effective protection could be severely compromised, while the existence of an MPA might give the dangerous public illusion that sufficient measures were being taken.

What this means is not that protection is impossible or premature. On the contrary, the major threats to Taiwan’s humpback dolphins have already been identified and readdressed by cetacean experts in 2004 and 2007, and the process of reducing or eliminating some or all of these threats could start at once. An end to the pretense in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports that the dolphins do not swim in waters slated for large-scale industrial development; considerable and swift reduction of the impacts of these developments; and the prohibition of the use of gill and trammel nets in the dolphins’ known range – these and other measures identified in 2004 and 2007 are most likely to have direct positive impacts on the dolphins’ chances of survival.

Of course this will not happen without much negotiation and some disagreement, as highlighted by the physical violence which occurred during an EIA meeting in the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) last Thursday, sparked by an argument over whether or not the dolphins swim in the coastal waters near the planned site of Formosa Plastics Group’s (FPG) steel plant, which is located within the confirmed range of the dolphins. The commercial interests of corporations such as FPG, as well as the livelihoods of fishermen and others who use the coastal and upstream areas affecting the dolphins, are indeed all factors that must be addressed by the relevant government agencies and the general public. But they must be addressed quickly, as denial and delay will rob all stakeholders of the chance to agree on a way forward before it is too late.

Finally, a vital element of this process will be a high level of transparency in terms of all information relating to past and present projects and pollution affecting the counties in whose coastal waters the dolphins swim. This applies not only to impacts on the dolphins but also to impacts on the human residents of these counties. Too often, the concealment of the toxicity of effluent (e.g. the TAIC pollution disaster in Tainan) and the composition and concentration of emissions has led (and will continue to lead) to the slow poisoning of unsuspecting local residents. Although possibly better than many other government agencies, the EPA is known neither for its encouragement of public participation nor its timely provision of this type of information. However, if any balance is to be brought to the debate over the need for protection of the dolphins, the link between their health and that of the local people (and all others in Taiwan and abroad who consume food grown or harvested in the soil and water in these areas) must be recognized, and not hidden behind blinkered forecasts of the doom that will befall the Taiwanese people if GDP has to make way for more holistic and honest measures of welfare.

Indeed, it is links such as that between business and its effects on human and “environmental” health and wellbeing, and that between human and other species’ wellbeing, that could lend a meaningful, productive edge to these APEC roundtable meetings. Until serious talk begins on integrating health and other forms of capital (other than financial) into national accounting, protection of the home of the humpback dolphins and other species will continue to be seen as a hindrance, rather than a facilitator, of economic wellbeing in the Asia Pacific Region.

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