Assessing potential population-level effects of human activity on dolphins

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Lead Researcher

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Background

Bunbury is the third largest city in Western Australia and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. As the fourth largest port in Western Australia, the Port of Bunbury plans to expand further. In addition, dolphin-based tourism (including boat-based dolphin-watch eco-cruises, swim-with dolphin tours and licensed food provisioning) represents a substantial proportion of Bunbury’s tourism economy. Consequently, the Bunbury dolphin population is exposed continuously to multiple sources of human activities, including recreational vessel traffic, commercial tourism, commercial shipping traffic and both licensed (legal) and unlicensed (illegal) human food provisioning.

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Bottlenose dolphins socialising off the Bunbury coast. Photo: John Symons, MUCRU.

Research aims

  1. Assess potential population-level effects of human activities on the bottlenose dolphins occuring off Bunbury
  2. Identify data gaps on the effects of human activities on coastal dolphin populations

Specific objectives

  • Assess potential effects of the legal food provisioning program on home range size, begging behaviour, and social structure
  • Quantify the spatial usage of individual dolphins and vessel traffic and, consequently, their cumulative exposure to vessel traffic
  • Assess the potential effects of human exposure, predation risk and the environment have on age-class specific survival rates
  • Identify current and alternative monitoring protocols ability to detect trends in population abundance
  • Inform the level of precaution that need be taken in any management decisions
  • Project long-term population trends for the population under current and alternative management scenarios

Methods

This project will continue to build upon the dolphin survey data set developed during Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the SWMRP. Vessel spatial usage will be assessed using a combination of vessel scan samples from an elevated position (Bunbury’s Rotary Tower), high resolution GPS track data collected from the dolphin tourism vessel, historical data on the number of tours run by Dolphin Discovery Centre, and automatic identification system data (functionally the same as GPS tracks) from shipping vessels. Lastly, spatial variation in vessel noise will be quantified using passive acoustic monitoring techniques.

People interacting with dolphins in Koombana Bay. Photo: MUCRU.

Illegal human-wildlife interaction in Koombana Bay. Photo: MUCRU.

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