On the 17th of December 2012, I visited to a village known as Sein-ban-gone village, which is situated in the Upper Central Myanmar. I was an undergraduate student that time. I went there to visit my friend Aung’s home. The village is situated by the Ayeyarwaddy river, which has been regarded as the life-blood of Myanmar. Local people in the village were friendly, open-minded and helpful. I found out that a majority of population (about 75 percent) in the village was engaged in fishery for their livelihood. Another 20 percent were engaged in agriculture, and the rest engaged in other activities such as trade, shops, government staff etc. My friend’s father, Mr. Tun was a fisherman. They used a boat and a large fishing net for fishing. One day, I was brought to their fishing trip. Aung was sitting in the back and roaring the boat, I was sitting in the middle and Mr. Tun was sitting in the front. When we got to a place, which is about 200 meters from the bank, Mr. Tun started to do a strange activity. He was tapping the side of the boat with an oar and making a strange voice from his mouth. Although I was surprised, I didn’t say nothing and just waited. Actually, I was extremely curious to know about his activity and what will happen. A few moment later, I saw a few silver fins in the water about 20 or 25 meters from the boat. Mr. Tun looked happy and said, ‘here they come! hello boys, bring me more fish for us today!’ About 5 or 10 minutes later, he throwed a big net into the river water. We waited about 15 or 20 minutes and pulled the net onto the boat. There was a lot of fishes in the net and we were happy.
When we got back to home, I asked Mr. Tun about the activity. He explained me that it is a traditional fishing method they have been used and the fins we saw were the Irrawaddy dolphins. He said a dolphin group of about 6 or 7 individuals lived near their village. They had been helping in fishing for the people. But they did not always appear and we were lucky to have their assistance that day. I learnt that fishermen get more fish when they got the dolphins help during their fishing and they get fewer fish if they didn’t get the help from dolphins.
Mr. Tun said there were 2 or 3 groups of dolphin near their village when he was young but some groups have disappeared. He continued, there were about 10 or 12 dolphins in the group we saw and he was afraid that group also would disappear. After hearing this, I became really interested in this human-dolphin cooperative fishing. And I felt that we need to do something before these dolphins disappeared.
Internationally, this kind of human-dolphin fishery is known as ‘cooperative cast-net fishery’. Cooperative cast-net fishery in Myanmar is one of the very few examples of human-wildlife mutualism around the world. This practice has been reported to be existed in the Central Myanmar since 130 years ago (Smith et al., 2009).
The sub-population of Irrawaddy dolphin in the Irrawaddy river of Myanmar is classified as ‘critically endanger’ on the IUCN redlist. The latest available abundance estimation data shows that only about 72 individuals were remaining in 2004 (Smith and Tun, 2007). According to a non-academic source, about 62 individuals are remaining (Myanmar Times, January 2017).
Electric fishing has been reported as a top threat to the species in Myanmar (Win and Bu, 2014). Accidental entanglement in fishing nets, water pollution from gold mining operations along the river, sedimentation from deforestation are also the known pressures that are threatening the species. A 74 km long dolphin protected area was established where electric fishing and other destructive fishing method are strictly restricted. Fishermen are educated to release if dolphins were accidentally caught in their fishing nets. Trainings have been provided on how to release dolphins without injuring the dolphins. Trading whole or part of the Irrawaddy is also banned.
For me, these conservation activities are not enough to save the extinction of the Irrawaddy dolphin from extinction. These activities only focus on addressing the pressures. People outside of the protected area might continue to use the electric fishing methods, or they might just kill and eat or trade the dolphin accidently caught in their nets. Why they are still doing that? The answer is simple because they are in poverty. This is the pressure which need to address to protect the Irrawaddy dolphin from extinction.
This goes back to my story from the beginning. During the trip, I found out that most of the fishermen were poor. Although Mr. Tun never used electric fishing, he said a lot of people are using that method because it is quite easy and cheap to set up the equipment and can catch a lot of fish with a minimum effort. Thus, it would be difficult to tackle electric fishing without reducing the poverty of the fishing communities living along the dolphin habitat.
In the ENVS3039/6024 lecture, we have learnt that a lot of recovery plans focus on addressing the direct pressures to the species and often forgot to address the drivers. In the case of conserving Irrawaddy dolphin in Myanmar, we should also focus on addressing the poverty of the fishing community. One option to do this is by promoting the traditional cooperative cast-net fishery, allowing cast-net fishermen to carry a group of tourists (4 or 5 people) when they go on cooperative fishing. Cooperative fishing can increase fish catch and thus increasing their income and developing tourism business can diversify their income. When the poverty is addressed, it will be easier to educate fishermen not to use electric fishing and they can participate more actively in the dolphin conservation efforts.
From my personal opinion, promoting cooperative cast-net fishery by integrating tourism into it can reduce the poverty of fishing communities and, ultimately, we can achieve our desired outcome to save the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Written by: Myat Ko Ko Oo (u6295481)
MYANMAR TIMES. January 2017. Will Myanmar lose its Irrawaddy dolphins. Myanmar Times, 1 October 2017.
SMITH, B. D. & TUN, M. T. 2007. Review of the Status and Conservation of Irrawaddy Dolphins Orcaella brevirostris in the Ayeyarwady River. Status and conservation of freshwater populations of Irrawaddy dolphins, 21.
SMITH, B. D., TUN, M. T., CHIT, A. M., WIN, H. & MOE, T. 2009. Catch composition and conservation management of a human–dolphin cooperative cast-net fishery in the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar. Biological conservation, 142, 1042-1049.
WIN, N. & BU, S. S. H. 2014. POPULATION STATUS OF IRRAWADDY DOLPHIN, Orcaella brevirostris (OWEN IN GRAY, 1866) ALONG THE AYEYAWADY RIVER.