Drifting down the moonlit Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River in Myanmar, gangs of fishermen drop car batteries into the water. Electrocution, or “shock,” fishing is punishable by hefty fines and years in jail, but that hasn’t deterred these fishermen, who can stun entire schools of fish at once and rake in the profits.
Come morning, traditional local fishermen rehearse their dance with the Irrawaddy river dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris). The fishermen rhythmically tap sticks on the side of their canoes and make chattering noises until smooth grey bodies break the surface.
With a flick of a dolphin’s flukes, the hunt is on. The dolphins herd fish into the outstretched nets of the awaiting fishermen. When the men pull in their nets, they throw fish back for their partners.
“We used to name the dolphins, but the ones we named are all dead now,” said U Nay Myo Aung, a tall and well-built 34-year-old cooperative fisherman and father of two sons living in Inndawang village. Aung is working with a travel agent and welcomes at least three groups of guests every month for dolphin tours.
Cooperative fishing – a symbiotic tradition
This old, symbiotic relationship between human and animal is unique – but it may not last long. Thanks to shock fishing, cooperative fishermen say that most of their catch is gone by morning. It takes them longer to find enough fish to feed their families, and the fishermen warn that shock fishing is directly killing the dolphins as well.
“I see at least one or two dead dolphins every year,” recalls U Htay Win, a farmer and self-proclaimed dolphin watcher for the past 15 years. On April 28, Win spotted a dead dolphin washed ashore along the Myanmar River, allegedly due to electrocution. The dead dolphin was only three-and-a-half years old, according to Win.
At 54, Win sports a “Save the Irrawaddy dolphins” T-shirt, an outfit he dons to welcome guests or patrol the river. He takes his boat out twice every day, once in the morning and once in the evening, checking for missing or injured dolphins.
There are usually nine or 10 dolphins in each group near the villages along this stretch of the Irrawaddy. He reports to the police whenever he sees fishers using shock fishing.
“I realized that dolphins are our best friend while I was out fishing at a very young age. Sometimes if you fall asleep in your boat, the dolphins will come and try to wake you up!” said Win. He started protecting the dolphins because he wants to thank them for taking care of him and his fellow fishers.
Roughly 60 fishermen in six villages still cooperatively fish with the dolphins. Win learned the special whistle to attract the dolphins from an elderly villager. Afraid this traditional knowledge would disappear, he started a 10-day workshop to teach the skill to others.
Between 2002 and 2016, 42 dolphins were found dead in Myanmar, 29 of them in the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA). The ADPA spans 74 kilometers of the Irrawaddy River in the central dry zone of Myanmar, encompassing nearly a third of the dolphin’s range in the river.
Some 40 villages exist within the ADPA and most of these communities rely on fishing for sustenance. The ADPA was the first national aquatic protected area in Myanmar, established by the Department of Fisheries (DOF) in 2005.
In 2012 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) counted a total of just 86 dolphins in the ADPA. That number decreased to 64 in 2014 and dwindled the next year to a mere 58 individuals in the river. Last February a WCS team launched a 10-day annual survey that revealed a more promising uptick: 67-69 dolphins, including four calves.
“It’s an encouraging sign that the dolphins are still breeding in the river,” Alex Diment, WCS senior technical advisor to Myanmar, said.
There are two different types of Irrawaddy dolphins – freshwater and marine populations. Their native range once extended from India and Bangladesh in the northwest to Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Coastal or marine populations in Myanmar occur in Rakhine State, the Irrawaddy Delta, and the Taninthari region.
Only three rivers in the world now host freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, one of which is the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. Three separate pods live in the river and all are Critically Endangered.
The dolphins are often seen travelling in groups of two or three, along the river. They use echolocation to hunt and are known to spit streams of water to stun their prey.
Besides electric fishing, the smiling dolphin – as they are affectionately called by locals – endures threats from gill and drag nets, logging, dredging, proposed dams, industrialization of coastal areas and mercury pollution from gold mining. WCS has partnered with the DOF since 2002 to implement a Management Plan for the ADPA to mitigate threats to the Irrawaddy River.
Ecotourism for dolphins
Myanmar has suffered a long history of oppression. First ruled by the British Empire in the 1800s and more recently by a military junta, the nation was considered a pariah state while under isolationist, military rule from 1962 to 2011.
Restrictive visas and poor transport and lodging options rendered tourism virtually non-existent until recently. Under the new National League for Democracy (NLD) – currently serving as the governing party – Myanmar has opened itself up to globalized trade, resource extraction, access to international news, and tourism.
Locals and government officials are hopeful that tourism will raise awareness of the artful tradition of cooperative fishing and in turn inspire marine and river conservation.
Already, Myanmar’s cooperative fishing with the Irrawaddy dolphin has garnered national and international attention and helped Myanmar’s tourism industry. Cooperative fishing villages estimate they receive roughly 2,300 visitors per year.
“I support the development of ecotourism in this area,” Win said. “We all have to find a way to survive and make money, especially when the government won’t give you [a] salary for doing dolphin protection-related work. Also, not everyone in Myanmar knows that there are dolphins in the Irrawaddy River, so I think the government needs to do a better job at educating the people.”
Tourism seeks to disincentivize shock fishing by making traditional fishing equally – or even more – lucrative. Aung welcomes the development of ecotourism because it helps generate income for his family. Per trip with a tourist group he can make up to 40,000 kyat (US$30). Aung reports taking at least three groups every month and sees dolphins about 60% of the time.
He believes the development of eco-tourism won’t harm the dolphins, especially when compared to the detriments of shock fishing.
“If well managed with significant local community involvement, tourism can bring income directly to local communities and fishermen, giving them a positive incentive to engage with dolphin conservation, and support measures to reduce threats, such as illegal fishing,” Diment said.
But in order for tourism to grow, hotels and restaurants must be built to accommodate rising influxes of people. Right now, most tourists sleep in local monasteries. Aung said he would consider doing tourism full time if possible, but in the meantime he continues to fish as well.
Aung said he had heard that the NLD government plans to make four villages, including his, official stations for Irrawaddy dolphin tours by 2018, including building more hotels. But such plans remain unconfirmed.
And improved infrastructure can come with a price: there are reports of illegal sand mining for resort building. But the WCS has an initiative to work with local communities to provide small-scale infrastructure and training for community-based ecotourism projects that avoid harmful environmental repercussions.
“Whether ecotourism can serve to protect the remaining Irrawaddy dolphins will depend on how the activities are managed and whether they demonstrate to local populations that dolphins are worth more alive than dead,” Vicky Bowman, Director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said.
She added that “there also needs to be adequate law enforcement to prevent gangs from electric fishing in addition to community pressure for protection.”
Done poorly, tourism could harm both dolphins and villagers. Tour boats that follow dolphins could increase their stress levels and drive away the fish they depend on. Commercial, large-scale tourism could also culturally misappropriate the traditional practices of cooperative fishermen.
Experts stress the need for the involvement of local communities in developing ecotourism programs.
“If income from tourism does not benefit local people, but rather is all going to others such as boat-tour companies, it’s certainly a missed opportunity to positively influence behavior, and can even lead to mistrust and disengagement in the issues by those most affected,” said Diment.
Myanmar has been launched into the modern world of global trade: as international stakeholders jockey for Myanmar’s newly opened resources – oil extraction, mining, and ecotourism – preserving local knowledge, culture and traditions will be a feat.
The country’s fast-paced development poses a serious threat to the future of its natural resources. Shipping ports are expanding, resort hotels are cropping up on the horizon, and marine gas exploration is barreling forward.
“Various NGOs are now working to raise the profile of the importance of Myanmar’s marine biodiversity, the benefits (its) protection can afford coastal peoples and local livelihoods,” Martin Callow, a former WCS technical advisor to Myanmar, said.
“Connected to this is the important issue of addressing Myanmar’s fisheries sector, arguably the biggest contemporary threat to Myanmar’s marine biodiversity.”
The “Mighty Irrawaddy” River lies at the heart of this development and is often referred to as the lifeline of the nation since it provides transportation, potable water, irrigation, and subsistence fishing.
Over 2,100 kilometers long, it’s Myanmar’s most important commercial waterway. The wide delta has the fifth highest sediment load of major rivers worldwide and its seasonal flooding leaves the riverbanks rich with loam for agriculture.
But as climate change alters monsoon patterns, the Irrawaddy is especially prone to disastrous floods, landslides, and droughts.
“Myanmar is facing many challenges at the moment…There are many priorities, with peace being the highest on almost anyone’s agenda,” Diment said.
“Marine conservation is recognized as an issue, but with low capacity, poor infrastructure, limited staff, and populous and assertive neighboring countries, the challenges are significant.”
At the confluence of local knowledge and market development lies the Marine Spatial Planning Strategy. The strategy was produced by Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation with guidance from WCS, the University of Exeter, and Pyoe Pin, a British Council’s development program in Myanmar.
The goal of the strategy is to provide policymakers with a road map toward sustainable ocean management. It lays a framework for balancing the interests of shipping channels, military security zones, oil and gas extraction, fishing zones, and protected areas.
“The marine spatial planning strategy does not explicitly address Irrawaddy dolphins, but it does provide Myanmar with a road map that can be used to identify threats and management solutions to Irrawaddy dolphins and other species going forward,” Dr Hedley Grantham, Lead for Spatial Planning for WCS’ Conservation Science and Solutions Program, said.
WCS and other NGOs also formed the Myanmar Fisheries Partnership to conserve fisheries so that villagers and dolphins can continue to rely on one another for a bountiful catch.
According to a 2016 article published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, Myanmar is home to the most small-scale fisheries in the world. But it also has a history of poorly managed fisheries, with shock fishing only one example of its regulatory challenges.
Win says that he voted for the NLD government, but feels disappointed with their leadership.
“Before, if you are caught while doing shock fishing, you will have your boat and everything on your boat confiscated, three years in prison and a fine of US$2,000. But now if you volunteer to hand the tools over, you will not go to prison,” he said. “Also, the previous government [would] allow their officers doing patrols [to have] guns, but not anymore, therefore, it’s a lot more dangerous for officers to do patrols now.”
Win applied for government funding for dolphin protection initiatives, but he’s not confident that it will get approved.
“Myanmar’s fisheries continue to be poorly regulated, with a system of concessions that effectively discourages sustainable practices,” Diment explained. “The laws date from the colonial era, and are urgently in need of reform.”
Conservation efforts like the Marine Spatial Planning Strategy and the Fisheries Partnership may be building blocks for balancing Myanmar’s resource independence and sustainable future. Time will tell if initiatives like MSP and eco-tourism programs will be enough to keep dolphins – and fishermen – smiling for generations to come.
When asked if the Irrawaddy dolphins can be saved, U Htay Win said, “Of course.” But they have to be kept free.
“Animals need to be in the wild, and dolphins need to be able to swim freely.”
Additional reporting and interviews supplied by Ann Wang
This story first appeared on Mongabay.