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The mystery and beauty of our majestic dolphins

The Burrunan dolphins are believed to be unique to our waters -- but the fight to understand and protect the species is little understoof, writes Hannah Carlsson

The oceans of Victoria are home to an under-appreciated and unique dolphin wonderland -- but experts say understanding and preservation of the bottlenose population is undermined by poor sharing of research and lax enforcement of regulations aimed at protecting the creatures from human activity. The owner and operator of Polperro Dolphin Swims, Troy Muir, has worked on the boats in Port Phillip Bay for decades, and regularly shares data about the dolphins with the state government.

But how that data is used is a concern. “There are lots and lots of data, it just needs to be accessed and used,” he said.

The wondrous bottlenose dolphins of Port Phillip Bay. (Photo: Polperro Dolphin Swims)

He said the main threats to the dolphin population were the amount of human activity and vessel traffic. Existing regulations from 2019 were rarely policed.

“They are good to have on paper, but they need to be enforced to be effective,” he said. In 2011, the Marine Mammal Foundation formally introduced the Burrunan dolphin as a separate species which could only be found in two places in Victoria: Port Phillip Bay and Gippsland Lakes.

Because of the small population, they were now listed as critically endangered under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. Long before 2011, Polperro researchers believed the dolphins in the Bay were distinct from other bottlenose dolphins.

They are now following the government's lead and recognising the new species. “It was really interesting having them confirmed as a new species. it acknowledges how fragile the population is,” Mr Muir said. But the Burrunan dolphins are only recognised as a separate and critically endangered dolphin in Victoria

Paola Lacetera, an Italian research assistant who did her thesis on the bottlenose dolphins in Port Phillip Bay, said there was not enough peer-reviewed data to support the claims about the population being critically endangered.

“The real problem with this population is that there is no information shared. There is a lot of information but it’s so difficult to find,” she said.

Ms Lacetera said the Burrunan was not recognised as a new species worldwide, and therefore was not on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list of fragile species. Mr Muir said current regulations governing the dolphins would be revised in six years time.

“It would be really good to have the research known before 2029, so we can actually inform good decisions. Now is the time,” he said.


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