This statement was read on behalf of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) by the Marine Species Officer, Mr. Lui Bell, at the launch of the Pacific Year of the Dugong in Palau.
The SPREP Director, Mr David Sheppard, sends his apologies for not being here today due to a prior commitment to attend the Climate Change Roundtable currently taking place in Niue.
On behalf Mr David Sheppard, I would like to thank the Government of Palau and the organizers of this event for accepting our request to include the regional launch of the Pacific Year of the Dugong campaign as part of your national campaign launch today. Thank you.
It was originally envisaged that the regional launch here would include representatives from all Pacific Island dugong range states and to also include of the review the regional dugong action plan. Unfortunately, funding constraints has made this impossible.
As most of you know, SPREP has been operating a regional marine species programme which focuses on three groups of marine species of conservation concern: dugongs, marine turtles and cetaceans. SPREP has a 5-year regional action plan for each of these groups.
In 2007 the SPREP Meeting endorsed the Secretariat's proposal to also include sharks in its regional marine species programme. In November 2009, the regional Plan of Action for Sharks was launched jointly by SPC, FFA and SPREP.
SPREP's work for the conservation and management of marine mammals in the Pacific Islands region can be dated back to the mid 1980s when UNEP's Regional Seas Programme supported dugong conservation projects in Palau and Vanuatu.
In 1991 SPREP and UNEP facilitated a regional biodiversity conservation workshop in Vanuatu. One of the outcomes of this meeting was work towards a draft Marine Mammal Conservation Programme.
The Regional Marine Mammal Conservation programme's first meeting was in 1993 where the focus was on briefing members on the significance of and threats to marine mammals in the region. Most of the work of the Regional Marine Mammals Conservation Programme during 1993-2003, was focused on whales and dolphins.
However, in 2002, it was decided to give more recognition to dugongs, and as a result the SPREP regional marine mammal programme was split with dugongs and cetaceans having separate regional action plans. Thus, starting from 2003, separate 5-year regional dugong and cetacean action plans were in place.
The current SPREP regional Dugong Action Plan 2008-2012 centers on nine key areas or themes: (i) Education and Awareness, (ii) Habitat Protection, (iii) Management, (iv) Traditional Knowledge, Customary Marine Tenure and Traditional Resource Management, (v) Capacity Building, (vi) Threats, (vii) Research and Monitoring, (viii) National, Regional, and International Collaboration, and (ix) Human and Financial Resources.
Even though dugongs occur in the waters of only 6 of the SPREP members (Australia, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), the proposal to declare 2011 as the Pacific Year of the Dugong received strong support and was endorsed by SPREP members at the 21st SPREP annual meeting, Papua New Guinea, September 2010.
The campaign is considered necessary due to several factors, for example:
- Dugongs are considered vulnerable to extinction on the global scale. All dugong populations are listed on Appendix 1 of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Dugongs are additionally listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), which means they are considered, under CMS, to have an unfavourable conservation status and require international agreements for their conservation and management.
- Dugong is the only surviving member of the family Dugongidae, with its closest relative, Stellar's sea-cow, hunted to extinction within 27 years of its discovery in the eighteenth century.
- They have disappeared from several areas including waters off Mauritius, Taiwan, western Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This can be a reality in our region as well.
- The dugong population in Palau is considered to be the most isolated in the world, and in addition to threats facing this population, it can be classified as "critically endangered".
- Dugongs are also of high cultural value in many parts of their range, a valued source of food, medicine and artefacts and a flagship species for coastal peoples.
- There is not much information available on dugong populations in the SPREP region and much work is needed to improve information, awareness and ultimately their management and protection.
The Pacific Year of the Dugong Campaign has four key objectives:
- Promote awareness and conservation of dugongs at site-level targeting key stewards and the fishing industry;
- Reduce dugong mortality as a result of human activities;
- Improve status information and promote sustainable management of dugong populations and protection of their habitats at the national level through effective and practical national legislation and policies;
- Advance partnerships and secure resources for long-term support for dugong conservation in the region
Dugongs face a host of threats to their survival. They are an easy target and are highly susceptible to coastal hunters. Subsistence hunting of dugongs may have been sustainable in the past. However the combination of increasing human populations in the Pacific and the introduction of new harvesting technologies such as outboard motors and gill nets has severely impacted the species. The fact that dugongs have a long life span but are slow breeders makes them susceptible to population decline. It has been estimated that a dugong population of only 100 animals would not sustain any human-caused mortality.
Dugongs also face many other threats including incidental by-catch in fishing gear, vessel strikes and destructive fishing practises. The incidental drowning of dugongs caught in fishing gear, such as gill-nets, has contributed to the major decline of dugongs in much of its range. The increase in vessel traffic also increases the likelihood of dugongs being killed by vessel strikes.
Then there are the threats to the food sources of dugongs, seagrasses. Coastal development increases sedimentation and turbidity which not only smother seagrass but also reduce the amount of light reaching them, resulting in the degradation of seagrasses and a reduction in their density and productivity.
SPREP's work is guided by its mandate, which is "to promote cooperation in the Pacific islands region and to provide assistance in order to protect and improve the environment and to ensure sustainable development for present and future generations".
This theme of cooperation and providing assistance is, first of all, reflected in SPREP's commitment to maintain, facilitate and provide support and assistance to implement the regional marine species programme, including the regional dugong action plan.
Secondly, SPREP seeks cooperation of partners and collaborators to implement the action plans, sometimes by entering into Memorandum of Understandings.
I would like to acknowledge here our collaboration with the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) under a Memorandum of Cooperation signed in 2005 which has since resulted in closer working relationship between SPREP and CMS on marine species work that includes dugongs. I would also like to acknowledge in particular the recent assistance from UNEP/CSM for dugong work in the Pacific Islands region.
However, there are over-arching problems and challenges surrounding conservation efforts in the Pacific Islands region. Some of these include:
- Lack of data and information resulting from the absence or lack of ongoing and long-term research and monitoring programmes;
- Limited public awareness and education programmes;
- Limited in-country skills / capacity to provide leadership in marine species conservation management;
- Limited national management mechanisms to protect marine animals and their habitats;
- Limited information exchange, linkages and collaboration.
To address these challenges, SPREP calls on Governments and partners, communities, fishermen, marine tour operators and developers, for us all to work together:
- To establish long-term dugong research and monitoring programmes at both community and national levels to improve our knowledge of the status of dugongs for informed decisions on management.
- Develop or review current legislation to adequately and effectively protect dugongs. A vital component of this is the ability for effective enforcement.
- Protect sea-grass habitats which are vital to dugongs as well as a host of other marine species and consider the impacts of coastal development on sea-grass habitats in Environmental Impact Assessment processes.
- Seize the excessive and illegal hunting of dugongs and the use of destructive fishing methods.
- Minimize impacts from gillnets and boat strikes by following simple guidelines.
The continuing health of dugong populations is essential to maintaining a healthy Pacific Ocean. Join us as a Pacific family in making sure we play our part to Respect and Protect dugongs and their habitats.
In closing, I would like to congratulate all of the SPREP members that are dugong range states for signing the CMS MoU for the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their habitats throughout their range.
I would like to especially congratulate the Government of Palau and local promoters on the great initiatives and achievements in the declaration of the sanctuary for sharks and sanctuary for marine mammals. These are milestone examples for the region advancing the conservation of marine species of conservation concern.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to affirm SPREP's commitment to the implementation of the regional dugong action plan and this Campaign and will continue to look at new ways to strengthen our cooperation with partners in order to achieve common goals.