The iconic Irrawaddy dolphins of Myanmar are facing a range of threats from economic development activities that are degrading their habitats and food sources. They are critical for fishery resources and water security of Ayeyarwady River. Local groups along the Ayeyarwady River are coming together to protect the dolphins and their habitats.
Irrawaddy dolphins can be seen in three major rivers in Southeast Asia: the Ayeyarwady (Myanmar), the Mahakam (Indonesian Borneo) and the Mekong. In Myanmar, the dolphin is known for its close relations with local fishers as they often help to drive shoals of fish towards fishing nets in exchange for the fishers throwing them fish.
At present, these gentle and good-natured creatures are facing a number of threats to their survival and habitats. These threats range from contaminated water from industrial and agricultural activities, run-off from gold and other mining, entanglement in fishing gear, and changes in habitat due to coastal construction or river traffic. More recently, dolphins are also being threatened by the increased use of electric fishing devices and the over-fishing of many rivers .
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Red List” of threatened species, the Irrawaddy dolphin is now classified from “vulnerable” to “endangered” as the numbers have decreased by half across Southeast Asia over the past 60 years because of economic development activities. However, the Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar have seen a moderate rise in populations over the past three years.
Irrawaddy dolphins and their relationship with fishers
Irrawaddy dolphins move inshore by following the tides into the river mouth and when the tides move out, they chase the movements of the fish for food. They have immediately recognizable, charismatic rounded face and head with no beak. They are similar to baby belugas with only a dorsal fin. They have grey color all over but lighter on the belly. The dorsal fin is small but their flippers are long and large with rounded tips and large tails and curved leading edges.
In Myanmar and elsewhere, dolphins are known to be an important indicator of the health of freshwater resources. The dolphin schools often have close relations with fishers and fishing boats. Dolphins mainly prefer nearshore habitats and freshwater resources and mostly restrict themselves to specific geographical areas or habitats. The restricted habitats are also the reason they face huge risks as they often cannot move away from threats such as pollution, habitat changes from coastal construction, disturbance from vessel traffic and getting entangled in fishing nets.
Normally Irrawaddy dolphins live in small groups of six or less but can gather in larger numbers of up to 25 in deep pools to catch fish. They swim slowly and usually avoid boats, often diving underwater when frightened. They are not fussy eaters and eat many kinds of fish available in their habitats.
Dolphin swimming in Ayeyarwady River
Credit: Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project
In Myanmar, dolphins are known to cooperate with fishermen who catch fish in the Ayeyarwady River. Fishermen let the dolphins know when they are ready to fish by tapping the side of the boats. Immediately, one or two dolphins will swim in smaller and smaller semicircles to lead the fish towards the boats. Once the net is thrown, the dolphins will dive deep underwater to create turbulence under the surface and around the outside of the net. The fish flee into the net where they are caught by the fishers and the dolphins eat the fish that get trapped around the edges of the net or that get stuck in the mud at the bottom after the net is pulled up.
Threats to dolphin habitats and food sources
A number of causes like pollution of the river from agriculture and gold mining in upstream areas, boat traffic, and electric fishing are threatening the survival of the Irrawaddy dolphin. More recently, overfishing with small-meshed nylon nets have resulted in lowering fish stocks and reducing the food available for the dolphins. Many illegal fishing methods such as electric devices or explosives often directly kill dolphins. Heavy metals, pesticides, plastic particles and other contaminants from agriculture, industry and towns threaten dolphin mortality. As tourism increases in coastal areas, increased boat traffic leads to disrupting dolphin habitats, and can result in illness and stress as well as collisions with boats that causes the deaths of dolphins.
Local conservation efforts
In 2005, the government defined the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA) and spans 74 kilometers of the Ayeyarwady River from Mingun near Mandalay north to Kyauk Myaung. This includes one-third of the range of the population of the Irrawaddy Dolphin.
According to surveys conducted by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 2009, the number of Irrawaddy dolphins in the protection zone was less than 20 between 2007-2009. That number increased to 86 after 2010. In 2014, the number dropped to 63. It increased again to 76 in 2018. A WCS survey conducted in February 2020 stated that a total of 72 Irrawaddy dolphins were found in the survey area which involved the section of the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to Bhamo in Kachin State.
Dolphins are popular among local fishermen in Myanmar for their mutually dependent co-fishing methods. This tradition is attracting an increasing number of tourists to areas along the Ayeyarwady River to view the dolphins. In order to promote dolphin conservation, WCS Myanmar and the local community along with local organizations have established community-based tourism projects that facilitate Irrawaddy dolphin co-fishing experiences for tourists.
“We have started Dolphin conservation since 2013 to highlight the cooperative fishing culture of the dolphin. The loss of water quality in the Irrawaddy River has a large impact on the dolphin ecosystems,” said U Maung Maung Oo from Natural Green Alliance which is a nongovernmental organization based in Mandalay.
“We have been sending letters to the government to report on the situation in the community. Since 2017, we have also been doing awareness training for alternative fishing methods that do not use electric fishing by providing nets to local fishers,” he added.
Awareness raising activity of Natural Green Alliance
Credit: Natural Green Alliance
Can eco-tourism help the dolphins survive?
Government officials and local people hope that ecotourism will both raise awareness about the tradition of cooperative fishing with the dolphin and bring money for marine and river conservation efforts.
Cooperative fishing villages estimate they get around 2,300 visitors per year to watch the dolphins and the fishers fishing together. Community-based tourism can become an alternative way to create livelihoods in the areas inhabited by the Irrawaddy dolphins.
“In October 2017, the Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project initiated community-based tourism efforts to showcase cooperative fishing. There are six villages in Sagaing for CBT. These are Sin Kyun, Sein Pan Kone, Yay Kan Kyi, Inn Taung, Ywar Thit and Shein Ma Kar. We support community-based ecotourism that can help local fishermen and their families in the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area,” said U Chit Htoo Wai, one of the managers of the Living Irrawaddy Dolphin project.
“We create job opportunities for local people and awareness about our lovely Irrawaddy Dolphin to both the Myanmar and international community. The visitors get to see dolphins and learn about rural daily life and cooperative fishing. We also set aside a portion of our revenue from our tours for the Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation Fund, which we can then use for protecting dolphins,” he added.
U Chit Htoo Wai explained that, “some parts of the river are used for fishers to rent out fishing rights contract that are a way to provide incentives to the local fishermen to do traditional fishing rather than harmful electric fishing. The fishers use the fund to also patrol in the dolphin areas to ensure there is no illegal or harmful fishing.
The dolphin project is raising awareness using posters in the local villages to help fishers gain a better understanding of how to protect the dolphin habitats and river ecosystems. The project is also working together with Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries in their annual fish release to maintain the river fish populations for both the dolphins and fishers.
“In 2018, there were over 70 trips and in 2019, there were 80 trips. About 25 percent of the income for the villagers came from ecotourism. Tourism training programs and conservation patrols are undertaken in collaboration with the community and the Shwe Bo fishery department. As a travel and tour company, we also create job opportunities for local people and produce handmade products for the livelihood in conservation area,” added U Chit Htoo Wai.
Cooperative fishing culture of dolphin and fisherman
Credit: Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project
Youth play a role in dolphin conservation
The Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation and Ecotourism project operates patrols to monitor the dolphin population and to check for the use of illegal fishing methods. The patrols report any suspicious activity to the authorities. Fishers get cash rewards for reporting illegal fishing nets. The patrols send the GPS coordinates of dolphin sightings to fishers in the area, which helps the ecotourism operators to take the tourists to the dolphin areas for viewing.
A number of youth initiatives and online campaigns have emerged such as the “Save Irrawaddy Dolphin Campaign” in July 2020. “Within four months, we were able to raise awareness about the Irrawaddy Dolphins. We were able to have celebrities, social media influencers, and many professionals from various backgrounds as well as private companies to participate willingly in our conservation campaign,” said Thiha Zaw, a youth campaign leader from Nature Advocacy.
“We hosted the ‘Save Irrawaddy Dolphins Week’ from 22 to 28 November in 2020 in collaboration with major international and local environmental and conservation organizations as well as other groups. The aim is to increase understanding of what it means to save the Irrawaddy Dolphins and inspire positive reactions to gather more support for conservation efforts. We are trying to also push for the Natural Heritage status under UNESCO for the the Irrawaddy Dolphin. The government needs to enforce tougher laws to combat illegal and harmful fishing activities,” added Thiha Zaw.
Patrolling and conservation work
“The number of dolphin deaths was at its highest – 8 in total – in 2020. Some of the causes of death were electric fishing and getting caught up in fishing nets. Due to the high number of dolphin deaths, local groups helped to start a one-year patrolling program in collaboration with WCS, the department of fisheries, and the local police. This program began on 1st September 2020 and will end on 31st August 2021,” said U Kyaw Hla Thein from WCS.
“The regional government is also supporting the patrolling of the river for illegal or electric fishing. When the patrols catch any fisher using electric devices, a legal case is brought by the department of fisheries,” said U Nay Lin, a township officer with the department of fisheries in Singu, Mandalay Region.
“We aim to protect the Irrawaddy Dolphins by creating ways to protect the dolphins and their habitats as well as river ecosystems that the dolphins depend on their survival. We wish to do this not only through media campaigns, rallying professional support and creating mass awareness, but also by promoting more sustainable practices for communities from the fishing villages, the fishers and their families by promoting ecotourism and education,” said Thiha Zaw, a youth campaign leader from Nature Advocacy.
The research and writing of this piece was made possible by a media capacity building grant from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).