Millions of species inhabit the oceans, lakes, and rivers that are a fundamental part of our planet. As more and more awareness is being raised about how humans affect the ocean, it's also important to understand the true impact we're having on marine animals. We recently brought you the story of the vaquita, a small porpoise that is facing certain extinction. Unfortunately, the vaquita isn't alone in its plight, with numerous marine animals on the IUCN endangered species list.
By being more informed, we can take steps to reverse some of the damage done before these species reach the vaquita's critical point. And with heightened awareness about everything from ocean plastic to the impact chemicals in our sunscreen have on the ecosystem, we can begin to take steps to conserve these important animals.
Because every day should be World Ocean Day, we take a moment to reflect on just a few of the endangered marine animals around the world. The more you know, the more you can help.
Here are just 7 of the endangered marine species that need our help before their populations disappear.
Yangtze Finless Porpoise
Asia's longest river used to be home to two freshwater dolphins, but with the extinction of the Baiji dolphin in 2006, only the Yangtze finless porpoise calls the river home. The Chinese government has been working with organizations like the Wolrd Wildlife Foundation and IUNC to help save the porpoise from extinction, as it is also on the endangered list. In fact, in 2014 the Chinese government granted the Yangtze finless porpoise the highest protection allowed under the law.
As the only known porpoise to live exclusively in fresh water, the Yangtze finless porpoise's habitat is limited to the western Yangtze River. Increased pollution and overdevelopment has stunted the porpoise's food supply, while illegal fishing gear has entangled many of these creatures and led to drowning. There are some porpoises in captivity and three breeding grounds in Japan, which have produced five births. Though only two of the five survived for a few years, there is hope that breeding in captivity can be successful.
Where do they live? Yangtze River
How many are left? From 1,000 to 1,800
What can you do to help? Support the WWF, which has been reconnecting floodplain lakes along the river in order to allow migration and secure food supplies.
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
The smallest marine turtle in the world, the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, has seen a sharp decline since an amateur video from 1947 showed 42,000 females nesting in a single day. The critically endangered Kemp's Ridley lives in shallow waters where they can feed on crab, mollusks, and jellyfish. Part of its misfortune came from egg overharvesting over the course of the last century. Though their nesting beaches in Rancho Nuevo have been protected since 1966 and changes to fishing gear have been implemented to leave them unharmed, the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle hasn't seen a population rebound.
Where do they live? Mainly the Gulf of Mexico, though some can be found along the Atlantic coast
How many are left? Between 7,000 to 9,000 nesting females
What can you do to help? Don't purchase items made from sea turtle parts, which are often sold to tourists around the world. Also, you can donate to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Though we mainly think of seals living in cold temperatures, the Hawaiian monk seal makes its home on the mostly uninhabited northwestern islands of Hawaii. One of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, these cute creatures have been threatened by the development of the coastline. As humans move in, seals are pushed out of their natural habitat or disturbed by beachgoers. More humans also mean more trash, and the Hawaiian monk seal has the highest entanglement rate of any marine mammal.
Where do they live? Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
How many are left? Fewer than 1,200
What can you do to help? The Pacific Islands branch of NOAA has wonderful guidelines on how to be a “good neighbor” to Hawaiian monk seals.
North Atlantic Right Whale
Despite whaling protection since the 1930's, commercial whale hunting has devastated the population of this gentle giant. The North Atlantic right whale is easily recognizable due to the white calluses on its head, which stand out against its dark skin. The species was especially popular with commercial whale hunters as early as the 11th century. Forty percent of its body weight is blubber, which causes it to float when dead. This is unusual for whales, but made it quite easy for hunters to collect the blubber. By 1935, there were estimates that the population was down to 100, and though commercial whaling was banned in 1937, the species continues to struggle. Today, the biggest threats to the North Atlantic right whale's survival are collisions with boats and entanglement in fixed fishing equipment.
Where do they live? Western North Atlantic Ocean
How many are left? 300 – 350
What can you do to help? Support the WDC, an organization that focuses on the conservation of whales and dolphins.
Galápagos PenguinThe only penguin that lives north of the equator, the Galápagos penguin's population declined by 70% in the 1980's. Though it's has since made a slight recovery, one of the biggest threats to the penguins is the El Niño Southern Oscillation, whicaffectsts sea temperatures. This causes a shortage of food for the Galápagos penguins, with many starving to death. El Niño also impacts their breeding season and life cycle. Other issues for the species include pollution, bycatch, and the introduction of other species. Dogs, for instance, carry diseases that can spread to the penguins, and cats are predators.
Where do they live? Galápagos archipelago
How many are left? Less than 2,000
What can you do to help? The Galápagos Conservancy works to rebuild nesting sites in order to reverse the declining population of the species.
Giant Devil Ray
The large, elegant giant devil ray grows to almost 17 feet, making it one of the largest rays. Living in deep water, it feeds on plankton and small fish. With its large pectoral fins, the giant devil ray is easily able to traverse ocean waters. Exact population estimates are difficult, but it has been listed as endangered by the IUCN since 2006. Why? The giant devil ray has an extremely low birth rate. They are ovoviviparous, which means that only one egg at a time can develop inside a female and it takes about 24 months to hatch! And unfortunately, the ray often gets caught in fishing equipment like tuna traps, trawls, and dragnets meant for other fish. Its high bycatch mortality rate, coupled with a low birth rate for the species places it in danger.
Where do they live? Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic
How many are left? About 1,600
What can you do to help? Support the IUCN, whose Shark Specialist Group has outlined goals and actions to help protect this species, which gets less attention than many other threatened marine animals.
Ganges River DolphinOne of two subspecies of the South Asian river dolphin, this freshwater dolphin is blind and emits ultrasonic sound to find prey. Unfortunately, by living in one of the most densely populated areas of the world, the Ganges river dolphin's population has suffered tremendously. The construction of dams and massive irrigation projects have altered its food supply and limited its mobility, while boat collisions and fishing net entanglement are the cause of many deaths. Increased industrialization has also caused toxins to seep into the water system, eroding the ecosystem. They also face threats from poachers, who kill them for their meat and to use dolphin oil as fishing bait. The other subspecies of the South Asian river dolphin, the Indus river dolphin, is also endangered. And with so few dolphin species living in freshwater, it's critical that changes are made immediately.
Where do they live? Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems
How many are left? 1,200 to 1,800
What can you do to help? Donate to WWF India which is working the State Forest Department on a strategy for dolphin conservation and conducts education and awareness programs for local fishermen.