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The 2014 WDC Bharathi Viswanathan Award

In 2013, WDC launched the Bharathi Viswanathan Award for Innovative and Non-Invasive research with the intention of showcasing non-invasive research methodologies, highlighting the fact that many of these methods provide scientific data of excellent quality, whilst also promoting the development of innovative and non-invasive approaches towards studying whales and dolphins.

Response to the launch of the 2014 Award

We had an overwhelming number of applications of a very high standard and choosing one out of the pile proved to be a difficult task. However, we were so impressed with the work proposed by our ultimate winner that we had no choice but to award it to her.

Sannie Brum - WDC Award winner

Sannie Brum is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, now living and working in Manaus, Amazon, Brazil. She studied Biology in graduate school with an emphasis on Environmental Science, and soon decided that working in conservation was her life goal. In 2007, Sannie moved to the Amazon forest where fell in love with the river dolphins. In 2011, she completed her Masters thesis focusing on “River dolphin fisheries interactions in the mid-Solimões River” and has been involved with Amazon dolphin research and conservation ever since. Sannie is currently working for Instituto Piagaçu, a NGO that works with natural resources co-management in a reserve in Central Amazon, working closely with riverine communities to help them in their relationships with both dolphins and available fisheries resources.

Sannie’s project is entitled “Fisheries co-management: could it be an important tool for Amazon dolphin conservation?” and will be based in the Piagacu-Purus Sustainable Development Reserve in the Purus River of the Amazon in Brazil.

The Project

Due to deep-seated legends and long-standing folklore, dolphins in the Amazon River were protected from deliberate harm and lived alongside riverine communities in relative peace and harmony. However advances in fishing technology over the past 50 years and, consequently, an increase in fishing effort throughout Amazonia, the number of harmful interactions between dolphins and fishermen increased dramatically and nowadays fishing is the major threat to the conservation of both species of dolphin that live in the Amazon – the boto and the tucuxi.

River dolphins become accidentally entangled and die in fishing nets but fishermen also sometimes deliberately kill them. This can be for several reasons, either as revenge for damaging the fishing gear, or because fishermen see the dolphins as competitors for depleting fish stocks, or because they want to use their meat as bait in the piracatinga fishery. This high rate of mortality at the hands of humans is even more worrying when we remember some important facts about river dolphins. They have limited distributions and small population sizes. It takes several years for a dolphin to reach maturity whereupon they only produce young every couple of years because like humans, they provide many years of parental care to their offspring. These facts accentuate the loss of each and every individual to the long-term survival of the population.

Fishing is the main economic activity in the Amazon, especially amongst riverine communities.

Given the vastness of the Amazon, it is very unlikely that tougher laws protecting dolphins or more sustainable fishing activities can be implemented without broad support from local fishermen

Management initiatives with full community participation, seeking not only the conservation of the resource, but also generating income for the communities, is the only way that dolphin conservation can work in such a diverse environment where people are living in poverty.

In this context, the Pirarucu Management project undertaken by the Instituto Piagaçu has been successful to date and have shown good results. The aim of this work in the Piagacu-Purus Reserve is to investigate how these initiatives for fisheries co-management can benefit the conservation of vulnerable river dolphins. Changing the perception of fishermen and decreasing harmful interactions is the primary goal of this project.

To this end, Sannie will be undertaking surveys in environments both with and without management schemes in place, as well as interviewing fishermen to try and understand their worries and preconceptions. Fishermen will also receive substantial information about the river dolphins and will be encouraged to help the project team in monitoring fishing activities and interactions with dolphins.

River dolphins in the Amazon are seriously threatened by interactions with fisheries and it is these same fisheries that will either be the cause of their decline or enable to them to flourish for years to come.