Zarni Mann
SINT GU, Mandalay — “La Bine! La Bine! They are coming!” shouted Ko Tin Phyo Aung, a fisherman who lives in Sae Thae village by the majestic Ayeyarwady River. He was pointing to where a group of Irrawaddy dolphins were swimming. He ran with a net to a small wooden boat as his fisherman friends called out, “Let’s go fishing! Hurry! Hurry! They are here! La Bine are here!” “La Bine” is the Myanmar word for dolphin. Unlike dolphins found in other parts of Asia, including Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar are famous for helping fishermen. In a few small motorized wooden boats, the fishermen headed to the area where about 15 Irrawaddy dolphins were playing. They killed the engine and began rowing with oars after selecting a place to fish alongside the group of dolphins that included two baby calves swimming with their mothers. One of the fishermen began tapping a wooden rod on the side of his boat while another made deep sounds from the throat. More than ten minutes passed but the dolphins just continued swimming playfully. “Give them the sound of the net,” one fisherman said. One of the men threw his net into the water and another gently rustled a net on the floor of his boat. Still the dolphins ignored them, although one or two pretended to swim towards the fishermen, making deep breathing sounds. In this method of fishing, the fishermen seek to communicate to the dolphins, via clicking, tapping and rustling sounds, that they are friends who need help to catch fish. It often takes some time to persuade the dolphins and there are occasions when the dolphins don’t cooperate. [irrawaddy_gallery] When the dolphins accept the fishermen’s calls, they swim in semi-circles, herding the fish. When a decent amount of fish are driven close to the boats, the dolphins wave their tails, signaling that it is time for the fishermen to cast their nets. Other dolphins wait further out to prevent fish from escaping. As soon as the fishermen cast their nets, the dolphins quickly swim away—to avoid becoming entangled and to hoover up escapees. According to the fishermen, fishing with the dolphins can triple their catch. But on this occasion, it has taken nearly an hour to convince the dolphins to help the fishermen. “They are afraid of us now and took time to realize we were not going to hurt them,” said fisherman Ko Zaw Lwin Aung. “They thought we were the ones using electric shockers and that’s why they stayed away from us.” Ko Zaw Lwin Aung was referring to electro-fishing, a prohibited fishing method that some fishermen still use to increase their catch. “They call the dolphins to herd the school of fish like we do. But instead of casting the net on the school, they use the high-voltage electric shockers to kill the fish and that also hurts the dolphins,” he explained. “That’s why the dolphins are [now] afraid to approach the fishermen’s boats.” In December, three dolphins, including two calves, were found dead in suspicious circumstances. The two calves were found on the bank of the Ayeyarwady River in Mingun Township, north of Mandalay. Locals said they were believed to have died from electric shock. A male dolphin was found near Katha with its tail cut off and injuries to its belly. The deaths have triggered concern that these endangered creatures are increasingly under threat from human interference, including electro-fishing. Electro-fishing With fish stocks in the Ayeyarwady River already depleted due to the damaging effects of deforestation and mining operations that continue to negatively impact the river’s ecosystem, some unscrupulous fishermen have turned to the practice of electro-fishing. This has not only threatened the Irrawaddy dolphins’ environment but also the culture of cooperative fishing. Although the Irrawaddy dolphins can be found in the stretch of waterway between Katha and Mandalay, the area between the riverside towns of Kyauk Myaung and Mingun in Sagaing Region is the only area where cooperative fishing with the dolphins can still be seen. Some fishermen that practice electro-fishing also use the dolphins to herd fish. When the dolphins give the signal to cast a net, the fishermen place high-voltage powered iron rods into the water instead, causing shocked fish to float to the surface. The electric current is strong enough to kill some dolphins—that are often just meters from the school of fish—instantly, while others die later. “The shockers which were seized a few years ago could cover a radius of approximately 3 to 5 feet. But nowadays, they are using more powerful shockers that can cover up to 10 feet,” said U Zaw Mann, an assistant officer from the government’s Department of Fisheries. Although electro-fishing is strictly prohibited, fishermen sometimes gather in groups to fish and are prepared to attack authorities that attempt to arrest them. “Some of our colleagues in the department were attacked by fishermen after their fishing gear was seized. The fishermen even threatened fellow villagers not to inform the authorities [of their illegal fishing practices],” U Zaw Mann said. “We have the responsibility to arrest them but since we have no weapons or power to defend ourselves, we have to just watch them, sadly.” According to authorities and locals, fishermen that practice electro-fishing often operate as a kind of gang, fishing under cover of darkness and always managing to flee authorities in motorized wooden boats with high-powered engines. “If they see the authorities’ boats from afar, they spread out and flee. We convinced them not to fish using that method but they threatened to kill us or burn down the village,” said U Aung Thin, a local from Myit Kan Gyi village in Sint Gu Township who is still practicing cooperative fishing with the dolphins. “Since we are afraid for our lives, we don’t inform the authorities.” Protection Plans There is already a ban on catching, killing or trading in the meat of dolphins. The use of gillnets more than 300 feet (91 meters) long or spaced less than 600 feet (180 meters) apart is strictly forbidden and the release of dolphins entangled in fishing nets is mandatory. The use of mercury in gold mining operations—said to be a leading cause of the Ayeyarwady River’s depleted fish stocks—is also prohibited. In a bid to raise awareness and promote the protection of the dolphins’ habitat, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is planning ecotourism packages in 2015. The proposed tours would include cruises near the Irrawaddy dolphins’ protection zone, an area spanning about 230 miles of freshwater between Mingun and Kyauk Myaung. The area was established as a protection zone in 2005. However, the ecotourism plans face several obstacles, including uncertainty over whether tour groups would be able to spot the dolphins. “The problem is we can’t guarantee that we could see the dolphins [at any one spot] because they are moving along the river depending on the current and the availability of fish stock,” said Paul Eshoo, ecotourism advisor to WCS. The organization is also concerned with ensuring the dolphins’ natural environment is left unspoiled, effective waste management practices, and obtaining official approval for home stays with local villagers living along the waterway. “We believe the plan will work and will create awareness around protecting the Irrawaddy dolphins, [as well as helping to] preserve the culture of cooperative fishing, which is slowly fading away,” Paul Eshoo said. “But we are just a small organization, we can’t work alone. We need support and help from government, local authorities, tour companies and the locals as well.”

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