Working together is the best way to care for our Ocean 

When we learn that entanglement in fishing gear is the most common cause of injury and/ or death in whales and dolphins worldwide and that 34.2% of fish stocks are over-exploited, it’s easy to label fishermen as ‘The Enemy.’ 

We tell ourselves, “They’re the ones catching the fish,” “It’s their fishing lines,” and “It’s not like I’m depleting fish stocks by myself.” 

Fishermen and a dolphin in Hong Kong.

We do the same when conversations about rising emissions, plastic pollution, and other human-made threats to our Ocean and planet arise. But signaling out ‘who’s most to blame’ doesn’t get us anywhere. (Not if we’re just shouting into the void about it, anyway.)  

Once we’re aware of a problem, most of us want to be part of the solution 

Most people are good. When we’re aware of an issue, we want to take action; drive awareness and education; make a difference. That’s the key: More people need to be aware of the human threats our Ocean and planet face.  

Recently, we sat down with Lindsay Porter who shared how fishermen – who aren't often considered the friends of whales and dolphins – have helped carry out data collection to protect them.  

Let’s dive in. 

Fisher Tai O in Hong Kong with a dolphin

Can fishermen help drive bycatch solutions? 

Lindsay Porter has been studying Hong Kong’s dolphins and porpoises for almost 30 years.  

Using local environmental knowledge and fishing community cooperation, Lindsay and her team, funded by the Joanna Toole Foundation, WWF Australia, WDC and SEAMAR (a Hong Kong-based non-profit) set out to map bycatch hotspots for finless porpoises.  

What is bycatch?  

In the fishing industry, bycatch are fish or other marine species caught unintentionally while fishing for specific species or sizes of wildlife. 

Why is bycatch mapping important? 

For the last five years, an average of 29 porpoises have died each year. The local population in Hong Kong is under severe pressure and urgent measures are needed to reduce the rate of mortality.   

Creating these risk maps of bycatch hotspots helps the researchers understand where dolphins and porpoises are most in danger of being entangled in fishing gear – which means they can be better protected.  

SEAMAR researcher with a local fisherman in Hong Kong.

Tracking dolphins and porpoises isn’t easy 

That said, documenting the day-to-day behaviours of dolphins is easier than tracking porpoises. Why? Because they’re easier to identify.  

Did you know researchers tell different dolphins apart through their unique features? 

Distinctive injuries and the contours on their dorsal fins are common roots of their nicknames - but not always.

Lindsay and her team call one of the dolphins, who is easily identified by a propellor cut across her tail, "Pink Gin." They purposefully didn't want to call her something like "Chop" or "Slice and Dice" because they didn't want her to be defined by a negative event. (And who doesn't like Pink Gin?) 

Pink Gin, a nickname given to a Chinese dolphin in Hong Kong because of the injury on its tail.

There’s another called “Sharkbait." Fishing line was once embedded into the front of his dorsal fin and left a distinctive narrow and deep wound. He got his name because, admittedly, they thought he may become 'shark bait' and not survive his injury. Luckily, Shark Bait is tougher than even they expected. 

"Sharkbait" is a Chinese dolphin in Hong Kong, nicknamed for the injury on its fin by SEAMAR researchers

Porpoises are more challenging to study visually. 

Porpoises are small and barely bring their bodies out of the water. This makes it difficult to see them. Plus, they actively avoid boats.

To study finless porpoises, they’re tracked acoustically using underwater listening stations, equipped with waterproof microphones - called hydrophones. Porpoises are very vocal and their clicks and buzzes can easily be distinguished from other underwater sounds. 

A porpoise in Hong Kong, hardly visible because they do not have fins, avoid boats, and don  

How are dolphins and porpoises being tracked? 

Working with local fishermen in Hong Kong, Lindsay and her team install trackers and recorders on fishing vessels and on deployed fishing nets so they can hear when dolphins and porpoises are near the fishing gear.  

Researchers studying dolphins and porpoises in Hong Kong work with local fishermen to get the data they need.

Working with local fishermen to track dolphins and porpoises in Hong Kong.

They also have seabed acoustic listening stations throughout the habitat so they can compare the activity of dolphins and porpoises between areas that are popular for fishing and non-fishing.  

The study has been running for one year and they are still building the risk maps and working with fishing communities to better understand these interactions. Working with the local fishermen means Lindsay and her team can deploy their listening devices throughout Hong Kong’s waters.  

How did they get the fishermen onboard?  

The team has always worked with the fishermen in Hong Kong. Of course, a lot of the results they’re seeing are because of the miniaturisation of tracking and acoustic listening technology. 

The technology has allowed them to deploy small and easy-to-use equipment that can accurately track fishing vessels and record marine mammals underwater.   

Local fishermen in Hong Kong attach listening devices to their boats so Seamar researchers can hear the dolphins and porpoises in the area.

The project relies on fishermen participation  

It all sounds incredible but we found ourselves wondering: How did Lindsay and her team get the fishermen to, willingly, let their activities be tracked? It’d be the equivalent of following a person's every move or peering over their shoulder as they worked.  

“It is intrusive, and no one would allow a stranger to monitor their lives in such detail without trust," Lindsay agreed.

For the project to succeed, the fishermen and research team needed to trust each other

In the same way that it’d be easy for us to view fishermen negatively, they could easily see a bunch of researchers who enthusiastically asked to track their every move in the water as a red flag.  

Quote from Lindsay Porter: I had to gain the trust of the fishermen by showing them my professional interest and also trusting them enough to share aspects of my personal life.

In the early days of the project, the fishermen needed to see what made Lindsay tick and understand that the research she was doing wasn’t going to hurt them and their livelihoods.  

Sousa the dolphin in Hong Kong waters.

“I have drunk several beers and gambai-ed (bottoms up-ed!) many glasses of brandy as I celebrated the festivals and events of the fishing villages I work in,” Lindsay said.  

She’s sung karaoke at the fishing association’s annual dinners which, she added, was incredibly challenging, “I sound like a drowning cat when I sing!”            

No one is the enemy  

Without the fishermen, the research being conducted by Lindsay’s team may have come to a standstill long ago and without her team, the world would know less about dolphins and porpoises in Hong Kong.  

At Ocean Generation, we believe working together is important and that we all have a role to play to take care of our Ocean and our planet.  

Thank you to Lindsay, the Joanna Toole Foundation, and SEAMAR for telling us about their research. You can learn more about the Indio-Pacific Finless Porpoise research being conducted in Hong Kong on their website.  

All images: © SEAMAR, Hong Kong SAR 

Seamar researchers photographing the dolphins they study in Hong Kong.