Sea Shepherd Brazil's Amazon River Dolphin Documentary

Wednesday, 25 May, 2022

Sea Shepherd Brazil has released an exclusive 15-minute documentary, "Red Journey: Crimes Deep in the Amazon River." Directed by Bruna Arcangelo, this eye-opening documentary shows the criminal activity surrounding the preservation of the endangered Amazon River dolphins.

Shining a Spotlight on Two Endangered River Dolphin Species

Many people are unaware of the plight of the Amazon River dolphins…if they knew the dolphins existed at all! Yet the populations of two iconic Brazilian dolphin species -- the boto and tucuxi dolphins, also known as “pink dolphins” – decline by half every 9-10 years. At this rate, they’re likely to go extinct within the coming decades.

Spreading awareness is one of the main goals of this new documentary, which follows Sea Shepherd’s crew in the Amazon River basin as they work in partnership researchers from the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA), the leading experts on these porpoises.

Through regular expeditions as part of Sea Shepherd Brazil’s campaign to protect the Amazon River dolphins, they’re conducting important population trend studies on these two species of dolphins in four different areas of the Amazon River. This kind of research is essential to understanding the real impact of human activities on these dolphins and provides critical evidence about their current conservation status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Sea Shepherd and INPI crew and researchers onboard the Veloz I. Photo Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd.

The Main Threats to the Amazon River Dolphins

It’s illegal to kill dolphins in Brazil, so why are the populations of these two species declining so quickly?

According to Sea Shepherd Brazil Director Nathalie Gil, river mammals are especially threatened because human interaction is much more inevitable for them than their ocean counterparts. Some river dolphins are carelessly killed as by-catch in fishing nets, and historically, many dolphins have also been killed by local fishers simply to prevent them from eating the fish.

But the biggest threat appears to be the intentional killing of the pink dolphins for bait for piracatinga fishing. Piracatinga is a type of catfish common in the Amazon fishing town of Manacapuru, where these dolphin populations are at their lowest.

Pink dolphins spotted and counted by the expedition researchers. Photo Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd.

“It’s estimated that somewhere between 300 and 4000 dolphins are killed for bait every year.”

Brum et al. 2021
Education outreach for students. Photo Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd

“Amazonians have a very interesting relationship with their biodiversity. The pink dolphin is one of these iconic figures, it has great cultural importance. But also immense biological importance. Biologically, we are talking about a unique genetic species.” - INPA Researcher Sannie Brum

“It's a fascinating species, because it evolved to survive in the rivers of the Amazon and their gigantic flood movement. These animals can actually get in the flooded forest with their flexible body. They have the ability to move their necks and this makes it possible for them to swim around sunken trunks and fish between the roots. You won't find this in any other environment, in any other species.” - Lucas Spinelli, INPI Researcher.

There are specific Brazilian laws passed in 1998 to protect the dolphins, yet it did not stop the populations from declining. The reason was the piracatinga, not a fish typically consumed in Brazil.

Demand for this fish suddenly grew in Colombia, after a similar catfish typically eaten there disappeared. The increased demand meant an increased hunting of the pink dolphins as bait. “As I’ve been here for so long, eventually some of the fisherman told me how the piracatinga fishing is done and how they use the pink dolphin as bait,” said Sannie Baum.

When INPI alerted the Brazilian authorities, a 5-year moratorium on piracatinga fishing was called in 2015, and extended twice due to lack of reliable data. Despite this, there appears to be no inspections whatsoever, so the fish are still caught and sold on the black market to Colombia. And therefore the dolphins continue to be hunted as bait.

Sea Shepherd and INPI argue that the moratoriums can’t be argued from year to year, because these dolphin populations take much longer to recover. The pink dolphin only gives birth to a single calf per gestation period and won’t have another during the five years that calf depends on her. One of the great challenges is bridging scientific research and public policies. There isn't enough research right now supporting the development of these policies.

“We need to extend the moratorium yet again, we need to understand more about the human impact and ensure that these animal populations are safe during the data collection and analysis. We need to stop the piracatinga fishing,” adds Lucas Spinelli.

The small boat teal discover a dead pink river dolphin. Photo Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd.

How You Can Help

Sea Shepherd has been in the Amazon since 2021 for the implementation of a long-term study of the population of porpoises and tucuxis in partnership with INPA. This campaign aims to deepen knowledge of the health of species to promote their conservation, disseminate knowledge through educational engagement with local communities, and expand awareness of the preservation of these species to Brazil and the world.

The Amazon River is the main artery to the world's ocean. We urgently need to obtain more in-depth and recent data on the population decline of these cetaceans to ensure that laws such as the piracatinga fishing moratorium, which is expected to end in July 2022, continue to protect these species. We must act now to protect these endangered species.

Learn more about how you can support Sea Shepherd Brazil and INPI’s research expeditions to protect the Amazon River dolphins:

Help support our crew's important research on the Amazon River! Photo Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd.
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