Abundance and Potential Biological Removal of Common Dolphins Subject to Fishery Impacts in South Australian Waters

Guido J. Parra, Kerstin Bilgmann, Katharina J. Peters, Luciana M. Möller

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Conservation management of wildlife species should be underpinned by knowledge of their distribution and abundance, as well as impacts of human activities on their populations and habitats. Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are subject to incidental capture in a range of Australia’s commercial fisheries including gill netting, purse seining and mid-water trawling. The impact these fishery interactions have on common dolphin populations is uncertain, as estimates of abundance are lacking, particularly for the segments of the populations at risk of bycatch and in greater need of protection. Here we used double-observer platform aerial surveys and mark-recapture distance sampling methods to estimate the abundance of common dolphins in 2011 over an area of 42,438 km2 in central South Australia, where incidental mortality of common dolphins due to fisheries bycatch is the highest. We also used the potential biological removal (PBR) method to estimate sustainable levels of human-caused mortality for this segment of the population. The estimated abundance of common dolphins was 21,733 (CV = 0.25; 95% CI = 13,809–34,203) in austral summer/autumn and 26,504 in winter/spring (CV = 0.19; 95% CI = 19,488–36,046). Annual PBR estimates, assuming a conservative maximum population growth rate of Rmax = 0.02 and a recovery factor of Fr = 0.5 for species of unknown conservation status, ranged from 189 (summer/autumn) to 239 dolphins (winter/spring), and from 378 (summer/autumn) to 478 dolphins (winter/spring) with an Rmax = 0.04. Our results indicate that common dolphins are an abundant dolphin species in waters over the central South Australian continental shelf (up to 100 m deep). Based on the 2011 abundance estimates of this species, the highest estimated bycatch of common dolphins (423 mortalities in 2004/05) in the southern Australian region exceeded the precautionary PBR estimates for this population segment. Recent bycatch levels appear to be below PBR estimates, but low observer coverage and underreporting of dolphin mortalities by fishers means that estimates of dolphin bycatch rates are not robust. The effects of cumulative human impacts on common dolphins are not well understood, and thus we recommend a precautionary management approach to manage common dolphin bycatch based on local abundance estimates.

Original languageEnglish
Article number617075
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are thankful to our pilot Brad Welch and business partner Alexey Suarez Gonzalez, Observair Ptd. Lty., who greatly contributed to the success of this study. We are grateful to Prof. Philip Hammond and Dr. Ana Ca?adas for their advice on the aerial survey design, and to Dr. Amanda Hodgson for the initial aerial survey training. We would like to extend our thanks to our aerial observer team: Lauren Holmes, Dr. Matthias Schmidt, Juliet Shrimpton, Rebecca Tite, Dr. Nikki Zanardo, and Dr. Jimena Rodriguez-Zarate.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Parra, Bilgmann, Peters and Möller.


  • aerial survey
  • bycatch
  • conservation
  • Delphinus delphis
  • distance sampling
  • dolphins
  • fishery interactions
  • potential biological removal


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