Playing the "numbers game" is not good enough when it comes to identifying what species are at risk from extinction, says Nicolas Entrup. In this week's Green Room, he argues that we need to re-evaluate how we decide what creatures need our help to survive.
The recent assessment of the conservation status of the world's whale and dolphin species has provided a good opportunity to discuss an important question.
If a society has a real interest in the protection of whales and dolphins, then a change in our values is needed
That is, is our current approach to the conservation and protection of cetacean species a success story or a dead end?
The survey by IUCN, the global conservation body, reported that nearly a quarter of cetacean species were considered threatened.
Of those, more than 10% were listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, the highest categories of threat.
The real situation could be much worse, it added, as more than half of the cetacean species (44 species) are classified as Data Deficient, meaning future research needs to be a priority.
The IUCN's review was done by various experts around the world and is based on criteria that define categories highlighting the threat of extinction to each species.
It is not my intention here to initiate a debate about the classification criteria used to define conservation status, but to challenge the concept used by decision makers who base their conservation decisions on what some people call "the numbers game".
Out of focus
The current practice applied within various international conventions and in the application of legislation is that the more threatened a species is (in terms of the number of specimens estimated to exist) the higher its protection status.
It is already too late to save the baiji, which is listed as Possibly Extinct
The result is that the species should receive more attention in terms of conservation measures taken, and get more funding from governments in order to prevent it becoming extinct.
This premise raises various questions. Does the prevailing theory prevent species from declining prior to reaching a status of such significant potentially irreversible concern?
Do we base our intention to protect marine species on the assumptions for their abundance in a vast region (whole oceans)? Or do we recognise whales and dolphins as highly evolved mammals living in complex social units, which we also wish to protect?
In late 2006, an intensive and expensive survey programme to search for Chinese river dolphins in the Yangtze resulted in no sightings.
The resulting conclusion was that this species, also known as the baiji, was most likely extinct. Gone forever.
Now, as the Austrian delegate put it at the last annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June 2008: "We may be faced with [the extinction of] another one - the vaquita in Mexico.
Future generations of marine mammals face an uncertain future
"There are several more on the list, both small and large cetaceans," he continued.
"Clearly, we are called upon to act before the status of a stock or a species reaches that level of concern, particularly if the threat is of a relatively simple nature, for example directed takes."
He was referring to the Amazon River dolphin (classified as Data Deficient in the IUCN Red List) and the Dall's porpoise (classified as Least Concern).
This was a clear call to implement conservation measures in advance of the reduction of certain species or populations to a level where they just occur in tiny numbers.
The Mexican government informed the IWC that $19m (£9.5m) would be spent in the coming years to prevent the extinction of the vaquita, which has an estimated population of about 150 animals.
Every cent is worth the effort; but did the situation really need to reach this stage?
Wouldn't a more precautionary approach to prevent such a scenario in the first place be wiser and cheaper?
Fishing for solutions
Let's take a look at the situation of a much more abundant species: the common dolphin.
The IUCN has classified the species as Least Concern, while the Mediterranean subpopulation, classified as Endangered, is facing a decline of more than 50% of its original abundance over the past 40 years.
We need a classification system and political action that is based on respect towards individual animals and focuses on the protection of marine mammals within their social units and their habitats
However, the real tragedy is revealed when you look at the situation of common dolphins in more detail.
Once the most populous cetacean species in the Mediterranean, common dolphins have totally disappeared from the Adriatic Sea and are going to become locally extinct in the eastern Ionian Sea probably within the next decade.
This situation is well documented in various scientific publications by scientists, such as Giovanni Bearzi, who have been studying these dolphins for about two decades.
The reason for its decline in the eastern Ionian Sea, where common dolphins are less numerous than the vaquita, is prey depletion as a result of overfishing.
There has been a long history of mismanagement of human fisheries practices and a failure of government action in this region, but the key problem today is caused by just nine purse seiners.
These are nine boats that could just switch their fishing methods to a more sustainable one and dramatically increase the local common dolphin population's chances of survival. But so far, conservation actions just exist on paper.
Let's face it, while a species like the common dolphin is of Least Concern on a global scale, population units in various regions - including in some regions we might not even be aware of - have become extinct or continue to decline towards extinction.
If a society has a real interest in the protection of whales and dolphins, then a change in our values is needed.
We need a classification system and political action that is based on respect towards individual animals and focuses on the protection of marine mammals within their social units and their habitats.
Nicolas Entrup is managing director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) Germany
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Nicolas Entrup? Is the current way we assess the risks facing dolphins and whales outdated? Are we leaving it too late before taking the necessary steps to protect marine species? Or is it naive to think we can save creatures from extinction?
I fully agree, the problem is one of attitude - on several levels. I get the impression that a lot of people do not give much (if any) thought to what happens beneath the surface of the ocean. Why, for example, are commercial fishing practices, which destroy huge areas of the ocean (e.g. by trawling) deemed acceptable, whilst bulldozing of a forest in order to catch a few deer - in essence the terrestrial equivalent of what is going on under water - would cause a public outcry? Why would we object to suffocating cattle, but not fish? Why is it all right to pull fish along behind a boat on a hook anchored in their mouth? And frankly, can we really presume to know enough about the ocean ecosytem to be able to calculate a 'sustainable' yield? How can we even start to take into account the multitude of ecological interactions we are affecting when we remove large quantities of prey and predators from the oceans? In the end, the real attidtude change would be to accept that the human population has grown far beyond what nature could nomally sustain. This increase is largely due to agriculture, i.e. the mass production of food. It seems to me that any attempt to sustain such a population by hunting or fishing like our ancestors defies any logic and MUST lead to ecosystem collapse. Personally, I have stopped eating anything caught in the sea.
Felix Marx, Bristol, United Kingdom
I sympathise with fishermen, but increasingly it seems that some of their practices are bad for or even destructive of the marine environment. Not all fishermen are responsible, but some can't or won't change. Having "fallow" areas of sea, rotated every few years, could help. If fish farms could be made viable for more species this would also be beneficial. Of course there are other problems too, such as pollution, inappropriate use of watercraft in some areas, etc.
Nick, Bromley, UK
We need to make up our minds what we believe, then we'll know what we should do. If we believe in evolution, then we need to accept that extinction is a natural part of that process. On the other hand if we believe that every species is sacred, then we need to worship the God who created them.
Hilary Price, Marlborough, UK
All the good will on earth can not save marine mammals. No species is safe from humans unless we humans, our industry, governments, and consumers have to pay to pollute and to use earth's resources. Americans are now reported to be using less oil, and the reason is simple. It costs more.
Greg Dueck, Edmonton, Canada
All fishing should be discontinued except that which is effected by a single person with a single pole and a single line with a single hook. "trawling" should be considered a crime against humanity.
David Newell, Sacramento California USA
All those studies, reports and laws are useless and misdirected: the only answer is to change what we eat and how we reproduce. If we continue eating other animals and increasing the number of humans on the planet there is no hope that life as we know it will survive. Why don't all the concerned environmental organizations focus on the real solutions and promote: a) vegetarianism/veganism (including aggressive bans on certain foods, instead of relying on market mechanisms based on increased scarcity, since scarcity=already endangered species!), and b)use of contraception (including intensive and explicit education at school). One more time: anything else is a waste of time. Haven't you learned yet that people don't give a hood about the extinct baiji or similar, no matter how many piecharts, graphs, and cute pictures you show them? Why do you go on wasting your time like that?
de Blas, new york
If you try to put the welfare of this planet beyond the average humans desire to make money, then unfortunately the planet will lose every single time! But that said... Of all the people who have written in saying this is wrong, etc, etc... What have you done about it (other than post on this forum)?
Karl Flinter, Hemel Hempstead
This is far too intelligent a piece of work to have originated from the dominant species of this planet. To ensure that nothing is done on this issues, I propose an endless round of consultation processes. While these are organised and undertaken, the burgeoning population of homo idios can unconcernedly go about their business, and if by chance the odd species is exterminated ...well the consultation process can make a note of it. If it happens God must have willed it; and if it doesn't the consultations can be spun out until it does.
Terence Park, Burnley
We need to stop polluting the rivers and oceans with our waste. did u see a documentory on the plastic ocean, that was scary and clearly shows we are unable to look after our environment, lots of species will die and eventually lead to our own demise, the early signs have been here for a while. We cannot survive without the natural world , people only care about themselves and material things, we need to get back to nature where we came from, unfortunately we have gone too far the other way.
I have never heard of a fishery that is long term economically viable and ecologically sustainable. The answer is simple - don't eat fish you don't catch yourself.
Roger Hyam, Edinburgh
I agree that rare species are often not protected until it's too late. But problem here is enforcement in poorly governed countries. Species cited there had misfortune to live in China, Italy, Mexico - countries not known for the good policing.
Jerzy, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The fact we may be causing large animals to die out shows that we put materialism now before the planets future.
steve johnson., whitwick leics. England
The fact of the matter is that even the most capable cetacean ecologist does not have sufficient knowledge to answer these questions in entirety. However, it does not take a world class scientist to see that in this, as in so many other cases, caution and common sense should prevail and that negative impacts upon the natural world should be minimised wherever possible.
Edward Cook, Salisbury UK
I entirely agree with Nicolas Entrup. Scientists warnings should be taken seriously and the decision makers should react faster and walk the talk sooner thant it is normally the case.
Sigrid Lueber, OceanCare, Waedenswil - Zurich, Switzerland
I totally agree and a solution could be so easy. Today scientists or environmental groups have proof that certain human activities are risky for the environment. The opposite should be the reality. The industry or the fishery needs to prove that they caused no threat to the environment. That's it.
breli, Berlin, Germany
I agree that most problems are best stopped while they are in their infancy, before they have the chance to extrapolate into something that becomes really challenging (and expensive) to fix. On the other hand, and I'm no marine biologist, our efforts in some areas may well be futile or there may be other parts of the earth's system that is affecting certain animals along with our own habits. We'll have many more years of research before we can hope to understand completely all the positive and negative affects of animal extinction. That probably should be worked out sooner rather than later as well.
Bryce Hotz, Omaha, Nebraska US