In a few weeks we will be gathered in Dunedin for our 20th Biennial Conference. This year’s theme is “Marine Mammal Conservation: Science Making a Difference“.
Despite the triple challenges of the Global Financial Crisis, the devastating Christchurch Earthquake and the recent shut-down of the US public sector, the conference organizers have done an amazing job. The conference program includes 357 talks and more than 400 posters. We are expecting between 1000 and 1200 people to attend from more than 30 countries!
My recent visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma) highlighted the importance of the conference theme and the urgent need for the Society to make a difference to marine mammal conservation.
The Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar supports a Critically Endangered population of Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and a unique practice of cooperative fishing by dolphins and local cast-net fishermen. The Ayeyarwady River dolphin population is fragmented into three sub-populations by two defiles (rocky river regions with fast flowing water) further increasing its vulnerability to a range of impacts including continuing threats from gillnet entanglement, electric fishing, habitat degradation and acoustical disturbance caused by gold mining operations plus the threat of extensive dam building in the upper reaches of the river.
As President of the Society, I wrote to Myanmar policy makers in October 2012, concerning an article in the Myanmar Times that described a rapid increase in the use of electricity for catching fish in the Ayeyarwady River, despite the efforts of the Government of Myanmar to protect Irrawaddy dolphins and the human-dolphin cooperative fishery. In December 2005 the Department of Fisheries established the Ayeyarwady River Dolphin Protected Area in a 74-km segment of the Ayeyarwady River.
My letter offered technical assistance from the Society, perhaps along the lines of technical advice and support to the Cambodian Government and World Wildlife Fund – Cambodia who are addressing similar conservation challenges with the same species of dolphins. Society members have formed an ad hoc Mekong Dolphin Working Group that includes experts from the United Kingdom, United States, China, Japan, Spain, and Canada.
In November 2012, the then Director of Fisheries, invited me to Myanmar for further discussions on Ayeyarwady dolphin research and conservation. Unfortunately, I was unable to go at that time. I recently made a private visit to Myanmar facilitated by local NGOs. I visited the dolphin habitat in the Ayeyarwady River, talked with fishermen, local NGOs and Fisheries Division staff together with Myanmar dolphin expert Aung Myo Chit (who will be in Dunedin).
We learned that the illegal use of electricity to catch fish is increasing. Chinese-manufactured equipment for electro-fishing now supplements home-manufactured gear. Electric fishing is reportedly now practiced by fishers from most villages adjacent to the Ayeyarwady Dolphin Protected Area.
The electro-fishers are largely non-traditional fishers who have obtained sub-contracts to fish from the fisheries concession holders by using bullying tactics such a threatening to poison the fish inside village fish-fences using agricultural chemicals. The fishers have adapted the electro-technology to several fishing technologies including drift gill nets, cast nets and beach seines. They also exploit the mutualistic relationship between traditional fishers and dolphins by using the technique in association with some of the techniques practiced by the co-operative fishers such as banging on the water to attract the dolphins.
There are reportedly more than 10 gangs of illegal electro-fishers (80 – 100 boats) who range widely along the Dolphin Protected Area, without respecting any rules including the concession areas. The activities of the electro-fishers are acknowledged by local staff of the Fisheries Division and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Attempts by Fisheries Division staff to enforce the law against electro-fishing have been unsuccessful.
I have written to the Minister in a private capacity expressing my concerns about this situation. I promised to write to him separately as President of the Society for Marine Mammalogy reiterating the Society’s offer of technical support and suggesting technical areas in which such support might be useful. I shall be seeking the advice of the Conservation Committee on the wording of this letter.
The extirpation of the baiji in the early years of this century is a stark reminder of reality of the vulnerability of small isolated river dolphin populations. The Ayeyarwady River dolphin population is but one of several populations of river dolphins and porpoises in Asia that are listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN. The widespread practice of electro-fishing is only of many threats to these populations. I believe that as experts in marine mammalogy, we need to use our technical expertise to help save the other populations from the same fate. We also need to collaborate with experts in solutions to the root causes of these problems: poverty and limited enforcement capacity.
I look forward to talking to you further about these important matters in Dunedin.