When “Green” Energy meets Biodiversity: How Taiwan’s Iconic White Dolphins Face Possible Extinction

Written by Robin Winkler.

Image Credit: photo provided by author, courtesy of “Batman” Chang Heng-Chia 

In terms of biodiversity, Taiwan ranks near the top of all countries with past natural historians referring to Taiwan as “the Galapagos of Asia.” For nearly forty years of martial law, most of the general population other than fishers and soldiers were kept away from the oceans for purported security concerns. However, as the Taiwan government becomes more mature in its self-discovery, particularly during the past two and a half decades, it has rediscovered that we are an island nation. Many policy initiatives reflect this, significantly the creation of a cabinet-level Ocean Affairs Council in 2018, a 4 June 2020 white paper and Premier Su Tseng-chang’s “pledge to respect the sea.” 

Taiwan’s oceans are home to about one-third of the earth’s dolphin and whale species. Most people associate our east coast with cetaceans, given the popularity of whale watching. However, the Taiwan Strait also hosts several species, most notably, Taiwan’s sole endemic cetacean the resident Taiwanese White Dolphin. 

In 2002 a group of scientists from Taiwan, Canada and Hong Kong discovered the population of pink dolphins (flushing from the blood circulation gives them their pink appearance) in the coastal waters of western Taiwan. Anecdotal evidence of the dolphins existed, but this discovery and subsequent scientific documentation would launch the Taiwanese White Dolphin into a high-profile clash of development and conservation. The animals probably became best known during the years 2007-2011 during which time massive petrochemical and steel plants and a new commercial harbour, all in dolphin habitat, were being promoted by the government. These projects were subsequently scrapped, in no small part due to concern for the Taiwanese White Dolphins. 

The genus Sousa, collectively also known as humpback dolphins, is found in shallow brackish waters, less than thirty meters deep, along the coasts of western and eastern Africa, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, China, and Australia. The Sousa genus is comprised of four species, with the subspecies of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, Sousa chinensis taiwanensis found only in Taiwan. 

Initial survey results led scientists to estimate the population of the Taiwanese White Dolphins could be as high as 250. Further surveys and research resulted in more precise estimates. Hence, by 2008 it was known that fewer than one hundred animals exist, with about ninety individuals having been photographed and catalogued during the first decade following their discovery. It was in part this low number that resulted in the animal’s classification by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as “Critically Endangered” in 2008. The numbers have been steadily declining. Published scientific papers place the number around 65, but more recent, albeit non-peer-reviewed, reports indicate the number could be approaching 50 individuals.

This population is limited to a very restricted range: the shallow waters within 2-3 kilometres from shore along the west coast of Taiwan. Confirmed sightings of the animals reach from the coastal waters of Taoyuan (Yong An fishing port) in the north, to the southern border of the Taijiang National Park in Tainan. Scientists believe that “suitable habitat” could extend as far north as the Tamshui River Estuary. Unlike their counterparts in China or Southeast Asia, the Taiwanese subspecies has literally nowhere to go when threatened by development or other encroachments on its habitat. 

Furthermore, these encroachments are extensive. In 2007 a group of international cetacean scientists flagged five significant threats: by-catch from gill nets, air and water pollution, habitat loss, loss of freshwater affecting the animals’ prey, and underwater noise. 

The west coast of Taiwan is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Industrial development of the coastal area has been going ahead at a furious pace, particularly since the Taichung Port development was included in Chiang Ching-kuo’s Ten Major Construction Projects of the 1970s. That massive land reclamation was followed by the Changbin Industrial Park, the Yunlin Offshore Industrial Park (Formosa Plastics) as well as dozens of other smaller land reclamation projects, a profusion of fishing ports and the proliferation of cement, levees and other elements compromising the ecologic integrity of the west coast. Noise, air and water pollution that accompany development, as well as agriculture and industry’s insatiable appetite for water, underscore both the danger facing the dolphins as well as the animals’ remarkable resilience.

These threats are also mostly responsible for the dramatic decline of fisheries along Taiwan’s west coast. This might lead to the conclusion that the dolphins and fishers would be natural allies in seeking to reduce the environmental intrusions. Despite this affinity of interests, however, the fishers are in the awkward position of using the most “efficient” but unsustainable methods of plying their trade –gill nets. At least one-third of the Taiwanese White Dolphins have scars or other injuries, most of which are attributed to nets. 

Although there is no doubt that the most immediate threat to the Taiwanese White Dolphins’ survival is the gillnetting, this conflict between fishers and dolphins has generally enabled government and industry to deflect scrutiny of their development activities. These development activities not only threaten the Taiwanese White Dolphin but the entire fishing culture of Taiwan’s west coast. 

New developments are prevalent in the Taiwanese White Dolphin habitat. To name a few, are two new LNG facility projects — in Taichung and Taoyuan —and expansion of the Miaoli Tongsiao plant. Then there is the supercharged development: a massive offshore wind farms project overlapping the fishing grounds and dolphin habitat. This project could spell the end for both the west coast fishers and the Taiwanese White Dolphins.

Thus, this narrow strip of waters along Taiwan’s west coast is where the Taiwanese White Dolphins, the wind farms, and the gill nets converge. 

Offshore wind development in Taiwan picked up momentum in the second decade of this century becoming an integral part of the 1000 wind turbine program promoted by the Bureau of Energy and one of Taiwan’s key components in its move toward a nuclear-free homeland. Two turbines were installed in 2016 and another 20 in 2019 next to the Taiwanese White Dolphin’s habitat in the coastal waters of Miaoli County. Additional projects have begun construction in coastal Changhua and Yunlin. Moreover, construction is now expected to continue through to at least 2035 according to recently announced plans of the Bureau of Energy.

Dolphins rely on sound for their foraging, socializing, and avoidance of danger. Disturbance to the soundscape from the excessive noise levels from piling during the construction of the turbine bases, to say nothing of that from cable laying and other engineering work, as well as the intensification of boat traffic, are all potential death blows to these dolphins. 

International scientists and conservationists have been pointing out that introducing this new threat from the offshore wind farms is irresponsible given the low numbers and low reproduction rate of the Taiwanese White Dolphin. Despite having the highest protection under Taiwan’s Wildlife Protection Act, no effective mitigation of these threats has been undertaken by the government since 2007. This was when Wild at Heart and other conservation groups first petitioned the Executive Yuan to convene an interagency task force to address the animal’s risk of extinction. 

Without any signs from the government to retreat from its pursuit of energy development in the Taiwan Strait, the conservation, along with the science community, has shifted attention to asking the government and developers to “mitigate” or off-set their adverse impact by addressing the other existential threats to the Taiwanese White Dolphins. Developers are all required by Taiwan law and the terms of their financing, to address and mitigate their projects’ impacts on, inter alia, fisheries and the dolphins. 

An obvious solution presents itself: the developers, work with government agencies and international experts to promote sustainable fishing (i.e., no gill nets) thus removing the most immediate threat to the Taiwanese White Dolphins – injury from gill nets. This will not guarantee the recovery of the dolphins, but it will be a significant step in the right direction.

Two Taiwanese environmental NGOs – Environmental Rights Foundation and Wild at Heart, with support from the international community through the Taiwanese White Dolphin Advisory Panel, headed by Dr Peter Ross, vice president Ocean Wise (Vancouver Aquarium) are among groups trying to work with the international developers on a sustainable fisheries program. Central to the program is phasing out as soon as possible gill nets from Taiwan’s coastal fisheries. At the same time, these groups are hoping to engage the developers and government agencies in a comprehensive program to address all of the other threats to the dolphins and the areas’ general ecology. Details of the Recovery Plan for the Taiwanese White Dolphin developed during a workshop in London, Ontario, August 2019 can be found here.

The good intentions of “green energy” proponents could be spoiled if these energy projects sacrifice the environment or fail to obtain informed social license. The plight of the Taiwanese White Dolphins presents an opportunity for a “win/win/win” scenario and could significantly raise Taiwan’s international profile in conservation and sustainable development circles. 

Robin Winkler文魯彬 was born in the US, first came to Taiwan in 1977 and relinquished his US citizenship in 2003 to become a Taiwanese citizen. A US-trained and licensed lawyer he practised commercial law for over twenty years before turning his attention to environmental law and social justice issues. He currently works at Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on animals and society in Taiwan.

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