Researchers fear tourists to Australia’s dolphin-watching capital could be loving the popular marine mammals to death.
A study is under way to count the number of bottlenose dolphins living in Port Stephens on the NSW coast and assess whether they are affected by sightseeing cruises and other human interaction.
Dolphin and whale watching, which attract tens of thousands of visitors to the area each year, generate more than $40 million in tourism for the Hunter region.
A survey 10 years ago estimated there were between 120 and 160 dolphins living in the port but researcher Caroline Waring said there were probably about 90.
She and her Macquarie University colleagues will spend the next year photographing the dolphins, using unique markings on each animal’s fins to identify them and estimate numbers.
Using a grant from the Department of Environment and Climate Change, the team will then see whether the dolphins are more prominent when there are no cruise boats and other vessels in the area.
Under guidelines introduced in 2006, dolphin-watching cruises must stay 50m from dolphin pods and 150m from mothers with calves. “We want to make sure that the existing regulations work positively for both the tourist industry and dolphin population,” Ms Waring said.
“The smaller the population, the bigger the potential impact. We can’t say yet whether there has been an impact on this population but it has happened in other places and that is our biggest concern.”
Whale and Dolphin Watch Australia – an industry body representing cruise operators – welcomed the study yesterday.
But spokesman Frank Future said current regulations were more than enough to minimise any impact. He suggested private vessels were the real problem, particularly speedboats.
“Speed is the killer inside the bay to most wild marine animals,” he said.
Mr Future said he received regular reports of dolphins and other wildlife killed after being struck by speedboat propellers.
And operators had reported at least 24 new dolphin calves over the past two years.
“The dolphin-watching industry has been going here for over 16 years and if anything there are probably more dolphins now.”