The following is a translation of a letter by Allen C. Chen that appeared in the China Times on 29 December 2011.
29 December 2011
By Allen C. Chen
Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration yesterday held a meeting to review research on the environmental impact of expanding the Formosa Plastics Group’s Sixth Naphtha Cracker complex located on Taiwan’s central-west coast. The meeting addressed the findings of a study conducted by a team of researchers from National Taiwan University and National Sun Yat-Sen University commissioned by Formosa Plastics. The researchers found that wastewater discharged by the plant is likely to adversely affect the endangered Taiwan humpback dolphins* and cause their population to dwindle. This finding surprises no one.
The humpback dolphins are not the only victims of pollution by the Sixth Naphtha Cracker plant. Residents of the neighboring area suffer increased mortality from air pollution emitted by the plant. The local humpback dolphin population, already struggling to find enough food in the area’s over-fished waters, must breathe the same polluted air, and swim in seawater that is acidified by effluent from the plant. This harsh treatment of the critically endangered humpback dolphins calls to mind the recent eviction of homeless people from a Taipei park in wintry weather by city workers armed with water hoses. Do we really need more costly studies when the plight of these dolphins is already plain to see? Furthermore, in taking a close look at the team’s research, this author has found it contains an alarming and misguided proposition that may prove to be the final twist of the knife for the Taiwan humpback dolphins. The problem is a serious misuse of the concept of “hotspot,” creating a skewed picture of the humpback dolphin ecology.
The term “hotspot” is rigorously defined in the field of biology. Wikipedia, for example, defines “biodiversity hotspot” as a “biogeographic region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is under threat from humans”. An example of a generally recognized biodiversity hotspot is the Coral Triangle region between Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea, a region with over 800 species of tropical coral and 1,500 species of fish and shelfish. The Formosa Plastics research team’s arbitrary use of the term “hotspot” to describe the frequencies of appearances by members of a single humpback dolphin species is a fundamentally mistaken analogy.
The concept of hotspots has been misused and bandied about to mislead the general public ever since the environmental impact assessment for the Kuokuang Petrochemical project, and has even given rise to absurd claims that the Taiwan humpback dolphins are capable of “steering their own way” out of danger. This flawed research adopts the false premise that the humpback dolphins reside only in the “hotspots” and merely “transit” through other areas of the waters they inhabit. This has led, in the research and planning of protection zones, to a misguided focus on defining the “hottest hotspots.” The researchers have accepted successive rounds of funding from the public and private sectors to conduct study after study based on the same old false premise.
Accumulating data by observing cetaceans in the wild is a long and time-consuming process. This research team has declared its data on the distribution of the Taiwan humpback dolphins to be “classified” and has denied other groups access to the data for comparative study. It has not submitted its findings for review by any international scholarly publication. By taking this approach, it has continuously postponed the formulation of follow-up conservation policies. The result is that efforts to save the dolphins are being snuffed out with the passing of time.
By contrast, a number of papers by other experts already published in rigorously reviewed international publications show that the full range of the humpback dolphins’ habitat off of Taiwan’s west coast is one integral territory that cannot be divided up into zones, and certainly not into so-called “hotspots.” Yet these facts have been entirely disregarded by the government authorities in charge of conservation, to the dismay of the international community of cetacean experts. Even though half a year has passed since the suspension of the Kuokuang Petrochemical project, the conservation authorities have not taken any action. They remain in thrall to the absurd “hotspot” theory that has never been subjected to peer review, and that is killing the humpback dolphins. The present author and numerous international experts have written directly to President Ma and to the Minister of Agriculture to stress the crucial point that the humpback dolphin habitat cannot be divided up, but our voices have been ignored, and the false concept of “hotspots” has continued to spread.
The Taiwan humpback dolphin faces five devastating threats: disappearing habitat; declining inflow of fresh water, affecting food sources; domestic wastewater and agricultural and industrial chemical pollution; underwater noise; by-catching in gillnets. This conclusion, backed by ironclad evidence, was confirmed by international cetacean experts back in 2007, and published in an international journal and a book, but 5 years later the Taiwan government has yet to listen to the admonitions of these experts. In the face of this snail-paced bureaucracy and flaw-ridden local research, this author must pessimistically predict that the eastern Taiwan Strait subpopulation of humpback dolphins will be stricken from the “critically endangered” category on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species within the coming few years—not because we will have succeeded in our conservation efforts, but because the dolphins will have disappeared forever from the Taiwan Strait. When that day comes, there will be no question about who killed the Taiwan humpback dolphins.
Author Allen C. Chen, PhD, is a Research Fellow of the Biodiversity Research Centre Academia Sinica, Taiwan, a member of the Eastern Taiwan Strait Sousa Technical Advisory Working Group, and a specialist on working groups of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
*Taiwan humpback dolphin commonly called Taiwan pink dolphin.