RANGOON— As man-made threats contribute to the yearly decline of Burma’s Irrawaddy dolphin population, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Myanmar is set to survey the species’ remaining numbers in early February.
Numbers have been falling since the annual ten-day inquiry began in 2002. It is conducted in a section of the Irrawaddy River starting in Mandalay and ending in Kachin State’s Bhamo, where most dolphins have been spotted, according to WCS Myanmar.
The survey team is concerned by the continued drop in the dolphin population, which is estimated to be 7,000 worldwide, but up to 90 percent of which are critically endangered and living in the coastal waters of Bangladesh. The other ten percent are spread throughout South and Southeast Asia.
Kyaw Hla Thein, a project coordinator with WCS’s dolphin conservation team, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the water mammal’s numbers have fallen in recent years: in 2012, there were 86 river dolphins recorded in Burma—this dropped to 58 in 2015.
He explained that environmental degradation caused by mining operations remains a hazard to dolphins’ survival; it fills rivers with extra sediment and can release poisonous mercury into the habitat. Fishing practices such as “gillnetting” drown river dolphins, which become entangled in mesh nets placed across rivers to catch smaller fish.
Another danger facing the Irrawaddy’s dolphins is the increasingly common fishing tactic of releasing an electrical current into water in order to shock or kill fish in the vicinity, also known as electro-fishing.
“Among all these threats, electro-fishing still remains the worst,” Kyaw Hla Thein said.
Although electro-fishing is illegal in Burma and violators face a three-year jail sentence, Kyaw Hla Thein said that authorities still face difficulties in arresting offenders, who have “become hard to control.”
“Unlike in previous years, [they] are now going around in groups on the river, with upgraded electro-fishing equipment,” he said of those who are violating the law.
In coordination with the Department of Fisheries, in 2005, WCS Myanmar designated an Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA) in Sagaing Division, from the towns of Mingun to Kyauk Myaung, where most dolphins are found. But as recently as late 2014, two dolphins were found dead on the bank of Irrawaddy River in Mingun due to electric shock.
Han Win, a deputy officer in the Department of Fisheries, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that while his department is responsible for apprehending illegal fishing groups, he felt the practice of electro-fishing could not be properly controlled without the cooperation of other authorized parties.
“To be honest, law enforcement is very weak. But the fisheries department can not do it alone,” he said. “Cooperation from the police department and local authorities is also required in order to arrest illegal fishing groups.”
Han Win also suggested that more public awareness programs could reduce the current threats facing the dolphins, as well as to educate people on the value of Irrawaddy dolphins and the importance of conservation.
Some fishermen from central and northern Burma are known to have fostered a mutually beneficial relationship with the Irrawaddy dolphins which predates the use of electro-fishing, but is now endangered by it. Also referred to as “cooperative fishing,” fishermen and dolphins work together by communicating through a series of sounds and physical signals. The dolphins then herd the catch into fishing nets, taking the escaped fish as a reward.