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Conservation of Threatened or Endangered Small Cetaceans Studies

Protecting Threatened or Endangered Small Cetaceans

In response to increasing threats to many cetacean species, in 2022 Dolphin Quest launched a two-part initiative aimed at protecting threatened or endangered small cetacean species.

First, Dolphin Quest partnered with the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) to help launch Operation GRACE (Global Rescue of At-Risk Cetaceans and Ecosystems). Dolphin Quest’s $250,000 donation enabled the NMMF to apply their unique veterinary perspective and conservation expertise to protect and conserve at-risk aquatic animals.

Next, Dolphin Quest launched The Conservation of Threatened or Endangered Small Cetaceans Fund to support at-risk species.  During its inaugural year, the new fund awarded $222,000 to seven projects in seven countries.

Projects that Received Funding and/or In-Kind Support from Dolphin Quest

Developing conservation strategies for the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) in Northern Kenya (Kenya)

Users Michael Mwang’ombe; Ashley Barratclough, DVM; Todd Speakman

A main project objective is to obtain baseline information to determine and establish the presence of the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins in a data deficient area along the north Kenyan coast, with the objective of developing and implementing conservation measures and strategies. The humpback dolphin is vulnerable to entanglement and bycatch from fishing activities. The project surveys will reveal the populations and distribution of the dolphins and will assess the level of threats they face.

The project will then work with local communities and fishers and the Kenya Wildlife Service to develop a conservation management plan for the humpback dolphin. The education and awareness component of the project will focus on these indigenous fishing communities and aim to empower them with knowledge and information to help gain support for humpback dolphins and other marine mammal conservation efforts in the long-term.logo, company nameLinks:

Photo Credit: KMMREC

Exploring cetacean acoustic behaviour in relation to human activities and bycatch mitigation trials in the Matang Important Marine Mammal Area (Malaysia)

Users Saliza Bono, PhD; Louisa Ponnampalam, PhD; Kuit Sui Hyang, PhD

Small and endangered coastal cetaceans inhabit the Matang mangroves and coastal waters, an area that is also heavily used for human activities and while the area is internationally recognized as an IUCN Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA), legal protection on the ground remains lacking. This project aims to determine the effects of underwater noise from boats on the acoustic behavior of small coastal cetaceans, and investigate the animals’ response to acoustic pingers attached to fishers’ nets as a deterrent device to prevent accidental entanglement. Resulting outcomes of this project are intended to aid with national marine spatial and conservation planning within the IMMA, in line with one of the latest COP15 goals of preventing species extinction.

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Filling the gap: Identifying cost-effective methods for forage ecology and habitat use research to inform conservation measure for small cetaceans (Peru)

Users Susana Cardenas-Alayza, PhD; Randall Wells, PhD; Michael Adkesson, DVM

The coast of Peru has one of the most productive upwelling ecosystems in the world. Although many species of cetaceans inhabit the area, dolphin foraging ecology is understudied and suffers from the effects of illegal bycatch and competition for food with industrial and small-scale fisheries. We propose 1) map current knowledge gaps and research priorities; 2) build capacity in field methods to study cetaceans through a partnership with experts from Sarasota Dolphin Research Program and 3) run a pilot project to collect and analyze preliminary information / samples to understand the foraging ecology of co-occurring dolphins in this ecosystem. In the short term, we expect to identify knowledge gaps, priority action items and gather preliminary key information from the field. The long term results will contribute towards knowledge acquisition on foraging ecology and habitat use of small cetaceans that is limited for small cetacean conservation in Peru.logo, company nameLinks:

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Photo Credit: Punta San Juan Program

Answers in a drop of water: elucidating population structure of the tucuxi dolphin from environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis (Colombia)

Users Susana Caballero, PhD; Barbara Taylor, PhD; Fernando Trujillo, PhD; Vanessa Mintzer, PhD; Frank Cipriano, PhD; Antonio Mignucci- Gianonni, PhD

All river dolphins are threatened with extinction because of their restricted distribution, overlap with human communities, and the threats of accidental death in fishing gear, habitat destruction, and being killed for bait or because of perceived conflict with human fishers. The tucuxi is found only in the Amazon and its tributaries, and looks like a small bottlenose dolphin. Unlike bottlenose dolphins, little is known about tucuxi except that they are declining rapidly in some parts of their range. Obtaining samples is difficult because they are hard to biopsy and vulnerable to dying from stress if handled. Effective conservation depends on rapidly improving our understanding of population structure to facilitate conservation actions where they are needed most, and this project will specifically address this need. We will obtain DNA from water samples to rapidly identify population structure with minimal impact or disturbance. Local communities will be trained to obtain samples and thereby actively participate in conserving their natural surroundings. In the future, monitoring studies could be developed with community partners to further encourage dolphin conservation. Project results will be shared widely with the public, and scientific and conservation communities, through a collaborative workshop, presentations, reports, journal article, and outreach documentary.logo, company name

Photo credit: Fernando Trujillo

Analysis of bioacoustic parameters of franciscana dolphins (Pontoporia blainvillei) and effectiveness of acoustic alarms in artisanal fisheries: generating subsidies for management and conservation (Brazil)

Users Marta Jussara Cremer, PhD; Renan Lopes Paitach, PhD; Pedro Volkmer de Castilho, PhD; João Miguel Neri Camilo Moreira, MSc; Kamila Andressa do Nascimento Maieski, MSc; Suelen Maria Beeck da Cunha, MSc; Raphaela Mota Gurgel; Naira Rosana Albuquerque, MSc; Luiz Gustavo Ramos Arrial


The critically endangered franciscana dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei) is a small coastal cetacean from South American waters. Bycatch in gillnets is the biggest threat to the franciscanas and strategies to mitigate it are urgent for the conservation of the species. The use of pingers, devices that emit an acoustic alarm to keep dolphins away from gillnets, is promising, but they still need to be tested in real fishing situations. In partnership with the artisanal fishing community of Farol de Santa Marta, in southern Brazil, our project will test the applicability of pingers in small-scale fisheries, evaluating their effectiveness with acoustic monitoring devices and potential side effects. Additionally, we will analyze the bioacoustic and behavior of franciscanas near different types of fishing nets and in different environmental conditions. In this community, we will conduct an early childhood environmental education program and produce videos for scientific dissemination. In Babitonga Bay, where a resident population occurs, we will estimate acoustic parameters necessary for the development of a new methodology to estimate franciscana abundance using acoustic detection. In this area we will also carry out a diagnosis of the fish production chain to identify opportunities for valuing fish from sustainable fisheries.

  • This grant was made possible in partnership with the Brazil Foundation, who served as the grantmaker. 

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Credit: Projeto Toninhas

Capacity building for Aquamarina team members with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (Argentina)

Users Randall Wells, PhD; Maria Ximena Merelle D ́herve; Leonardo Berninsone, MSc; Maria Fernanda Zapata; Carina Laura Fernandez Righi; Agustina Caride, MSc


For over 25 years, Aquamarina has carried out efforts to reduce Franciscana Dolphin incidental bycatch through its range in Argentina. Every new project provides information that contributes to its protection. Alternative fishing technologies have been tested, such as long lines, reflective nets and acoustic alarms. The latest alarms have proved to be very effective and are being used by local fishermen. Much has been learned from the 7 previous Franciscana tagging and tracking sessions, about ranging patterns, movements, and dive depths and durations. This information is being shared with the government and other stakeholders so, working together, a possible solution to dolphin bycatch may be found.


A few members of Aquamarina’s interdisciplinary team have had previous opportunities to train with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, but we believe it is important to train more team members to continue our work for the conservation of the Franciscanas. To this end, Aquamarina will send 4 team members for training with the SDRP during catch-and-release health assessments in 2023, and a fourth member will also participate in a 3-month internship. These trainings will greatly increase the capacity of Aquamarina to safely and effectively conduct Franciscana conservation research in Argentina.logo, company nameLinks:

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Detecting, Preventing, and Minimizing Mortality of Ganges River Dolphins from entanglement in fishing nets in the Gangetic plains (India)

Users Nachiket Kelkar; Kiran Rahalkar; Subhasis Dey

Endangered Ganges River Dolphins continue to face the threat of accidental entanglement and mortality in fishing nets, also called bycatch. Yet, the extent of bycatch mortality and its impacts on river dolphin populations are poorly known. This is because: 1) fishers avoid reporting cases fearing legal hassles, 2) most fishers are poor, so penalties imposed in reaction to illegal activities of a few can deprive the entire community of livelihood, and 3) the high value of dolphin oil in illegal trade lures fishers to partake in it. In this context, our project aims to develop and implement novel approaches to detect, prevent, and minimize bycatch and oil use, through 1) fishery surveys and visual detection and anti-poaching tools, 2) ‘geo-fencing’ technology to tag fishing boats to prevent gillnets in dolphin hotspots, and 3) arrangements for dialogue and incentivization of fishers to abandon illegal practices involving dolphin oil use.

  • This grant was made possible in partnership with Charities Aid Foundation, who served as the grantmaker.



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