his is a Translation Article, originally written by Khin Sandar Nyunt on 17 December 2020 as ဧရာဝတီလင်းပိုင် အသေအပျောက်များရခြင်း နောက်ကွယ်. Special thanks to Khin Sanda Nyunt, a freelance researcher for letting us share her article. She researches cultural, social and environmental topics and writes papers and articles.

Translator Notes for Readers

The Mysterious Irrawaddy Dolphin

Have you ever seen an Irrawaddy dolphin? These unique creatures are found in the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia and are considered critically endangered due to their declining numbers. They are friends for local communities by helping in fishing, known as human-dolphin cooperative fishing. The Irrawaddy dolphin is not classified as a river dolphin although some populations do live exclusively in freshwater rivers hundreds of miles away from the coast. Let's explore the mysterious world of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

What is an Irrawaddy Dolphin?

The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is a small endangered species of oceanic dolphin found in shallow, coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. It is named after the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, known in ancient times as the "River of Kings." This species is closely related to other oceanic dolphins such as orcas and pilot whales, but they have shorter beaks than other species. Male adults can reach lengths of up to seven feet while females average five feet. They are easily identified by their distinctive gray-colored bodies with white spots on their undersides.

Freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin populations

There are three isolated freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin populations: in Myanmar they live in the Irrawaddy River (also known as the Ayeyarwaddy River); in the Mekong in Cambodia and Lao PDR; and the Mahakham in IndonesiaBorneo, they live in the Mahakam River; in India, they live in Chilka Lake; in Thailand, they live in Songkhla Lake; and in Cambodia and Lao,they live in the Mekong River (Lao's last Dolphin is dead). The Irrawaddy dolphin is also regarded as a sacred animal by both Khmer and Lao people, and is an important source of income and jobs for communities involved in dolphin-watching ecotourism.

Main Threats Facing Irrawaddy Dolphin

Unfortunately, this fascinating species is facing several threats that put their survival at risk. Overfishing has caused a decrease in food sources for dolphins, leaving them more vulnerable to predators like sharks and crocodiles. Pollution from oil spills, sewage runoff, and toxic chemicals also pose a serious threat to these animals’ health. In addition, habitat loss caused by dams built along rivers restrict water flow which can affect migration patterns and disrupt spawning grounds for fish which are an important food source for dolphins. Finally, accidental catches by fishing gear and boats can lead to deadly entanglement in nets or lines which can cause injury or even death for these fragile mammals.

Reason behind the Death of Irrawaddy Dolphins

2020 is the year with the most deaths of endangered species - including the Irrawaddy dolphin. In 2020, from March to the end of October, 8 Irrawaddy dolphins have died. It is already more than 2018, which was considered the deadliest year during the Irrawaddy dolphins conservation period.

According to data collected by the Department of Fisheries and the Wildlife Conservation Society (Myanmar) in February every year, 2020 recorded the highest number of Irrawaddy dolphins in two decades, with 79 Irrawaddy dolphin populations. However, this information is only up to date as of February 2020.

From February onwards, I heard occasional reports of dead Irrawaddy dolphins. When the data is compiled regularly, the number is as high as in 2018. Therefore, when the Bird Conservation Association contacted U Kyaw Hla Thein, who is in charge of Irrawaddy dolphins conservation, a total of 8 dolphins have died as of now (November 2020). It was two more than in 2018. Of the 8 Irrawaddy dolphins that died, 1 was a cub. 1 juvenile over one year old, 2 adults over 7 feet in length and the rest are of good size.

“Of the 8 that died, 1 was a calf. 1 unadult baby over one year old, 2 adults over 7 feet in length and the rest are of good adult size. It is estimated that 4 of the 8 animals died as a result of human actions. The main causes of death are entanglement with the fishing nets and electrocution fishing.”

The causes of death in 2018 are also similar. Looking back at my collection of Irrawaddy dolphins mortality data, I also see that gill-nets and battery shock fishing are common. These factors need to be carefully examined.

Causal Chain

It is well known that the main causes of death of the dolphins are battery shock fishing and longline fishing, which also affects the dolphins that roam along the river. The shock not only caused the death of dolphins and fishes but those that survive become sterile, unable to reproduce, which leads to reduced fish growth. For this reason, the relevant organizations should provide awareness to not practice these fishing methods. Although the government is taking measures to strictly enforce the law, it is currently increasing.

The Irrawaddy dolphins that helps fishermen catch fish/ Alex Diment/Mongabay
Irrawaddy Dolphins cooperation with fisherman for fishing (Photo by - Alex Diment/Mongabay)

There are various theories and reasons regarding electric shock fishing. There are different opinions that they do it because they don't know the related effects, it is easy to get a lot of fish, it doesn’t need to put in too much effort, the living stocks are becoming more difficult, etc., In addition to these assumptions, one of the underlying causes, which is the decline in fish resources, should also be examined.

"There are less fish in the river; So, they are doing it in a way that is not possible," I heard during my trip to the Irrawaddy River in December 2019. Because they do it the way they can, the ability of the fish to reproduce, growing conditions and the ability of the Irrawaddy dolphins to survive and graze freely are threatening.

“Irrawaddy dolphins conservation and fish resource issues go hand in hand.”

Declining state of fish resources

Looking at the government's fish resource data in the Myanmar Statistical Information Service (MMSIS), it was found that the inland freshwater fish production capacity has only increased annually from 1985 to 2017. However, in the actual situation, the river in the stream, the availability of fish in the inns has already decreased.

The 2018 edition of the Marine Policy academic paper on the current state of Myanmar's fish resources and opportunities for policy change points out that the information released by the government is different from the actual situation.

The government's statement indicated that fish production for 2016 was 5.6 million metric tons, but data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicated that it was around 3 million metric tons. Of particular note is that according to the government's 2018 inland freshwater fish production data, it has already decreased by more than 50 percent compared to 2017 and the previous years.

In the actual situation, "locals estimate that the amount of fish obtained from the Irrawaddy River is only 10 percent compared to the period before 1990," said U Yin Nyein, a fish resource expert who has worked for over 10 years in a non-governmental organization in the field of inland freshwater fish resource management.

A baby Irrawaddy dolphin was found dead in June 29, 2020 / Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar - WCS
Found dead baby dolphin in June 29, 2020 (Photo by - WCS Myanmar)

Similarly, U Maung Maung Oo, who has been working on environmental issues for many years, said in his field observations and interviews with fishermen, the estimates that the fish resources of the Irrawaddy River have decreased by 80% in three decades are correct. 

Also, according to the records of visits during my December 2019 trip to Mandalay, Sakyin, Maungkone, Htigyaing, Kathar and Bamaw Townships, Fishermen and residents have told that ‘the amount of fish available in the Irrawaddy River has decreased significantly..’

To this day, I still remember his words when a friend from Htigyaing Township, where there are a lot of lakes, had lunch at his house. ‘Before, we didn't eat fish meat (fish without scales) because of the flesh smell. Now, since fish are rare, we are already eating them,’ he said.

“During the trip, I visited the local markets and only found the ice fish and farmed fish that came with ice buckets. There are no large river fish. There are only a few fish sellers who sell River fish, stream fish, and small fishes. 

The business of pickled fish in Katha town is also mentioned as the business is not good due to the reduction of fish. In the years when there are a lot of fish, about 100 pickled fishes are made a day, but this year (2019) about 30 to 40 fishes a day, said a pickled fish entrepreneur in Katha town. There is no longer any doubt that the inland freshwater fish resource has declined drastically.

Weaknesses of the system

The decline in fish resources is also related to the weakness of the fisheries management system. The problem is that the fish resources management system is mainly aimed at increasing the production volume and annual government funding, even though the fish resources are decreasing in practice. According to the document written in the above Marine Policy publication, since the British colonial era, there have been major changes in Myanmar's fisheries management policy, and inland freshwater fisheries have been managed as a source of government revenue. 

During the military regime, the country's economy was promoted as a pillar of resource exploitation, and the floor auction price was increased by 10 percent every year. After 2010, decentralization took place, giving state governments authority over inland freshwater fish resource management and revenue. In 2016, small groups of fishermen gained more access to rights. For example, since 2012, according to the Irrawaddy Divisional Freshwater Fisheries Law, the direct selling system of inns (what are inns?) and tenders has been changed to a competitive bidding system.

“However, there are those who are not actually working in the water industry but can afford to form groups and bid. In order not to do that, the group of people who actually work in the water industry paid them a fee and then won the auction.”

Therefore, those who actually work in the water industry have to bear additional costs. During 2014-2015, U San Aung, a retired principal of Pyapon Town Fisheries Training School, who studied 116 inns in Irrawaddy Division, found that the highest price was 80,000,000 MMK. Fees are different depending on the size of the inns.

September 18, 2020 Battery Shot Fishing Sighting Record / Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar - WCS
Battery Shocking Fishing Record on September 18, 2020 (Photo by - WCS Myanmar)

"In some big inns, if you add up the auction fee and the fee, it can be as much as several hundred thousand kyats," said U Yin Nyein, who has worked in the fish resource industry for a long time. Therefore, those who work in the water industry have difficulty to recover income due to requiring a large capital and the decline in fish availability. These conditions were also observed during my trip to the Irrawaddy River from inns fishers in Htigyaing and Kathar Town.

Currently, there is a decentralization of fisheries management, but it is still mainly focused on increasing production and generating national income. Block licenses are granted to rivers and streams as non-reserved fishing waters. On the other hand, taxes are also being raised every year.

However, the amount of fish has already decreased, making it difficult for those who work in the tender license blocks and leased granary blocks. They began to work on cost-effective and easy-to-use methods. It is a Reality that they work in an easy way because livelihood is difficult and weak in knowledge. I learned that there are people who work secretly even knowing that it is bad for the long term. As they do so, on the one hand, the fish resource decreases.

At the same time, there has been a lack of practical implementation of measures to preserve wetlands, the river, creek, lake, water shelters. Reports on the Myanmar fisheries industry say that conservation measures are weak because they focus only on increasing tax collection. A number of research papers have already pointed this out.

The document in the Marine Policy publication referred to above also points to weakness in data collection and analysis in the Myanmar fish resource section. It is also pointed out that management has limited capacity. The 2008 to 2018 Fisheries Management Reform 10-Year Journey document also suggests that long-term planning and capacity building are needed to effectively implement decentralization and community-based management processes.

This is not a close-call. There is a need to consider the limitations and potential of the fish resource management system for Irrawaddy dolphin conservation.

Other circumstances to consider

In addition to electric shock fishing, habitat degradation by direct discharging of wastewater from industrial areas and plantations with excessive use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on the banks of the river, fishing with chemicals are among the many factors that pollute water and cause poisonous fish death. Also the reduction of water areas for fishes to lay their eggs, shallow of rivers cannot be forgotten.

On my return trip, I saw banana plantations on the Right banks of the River, after I reached over Bamaw Town at the bridge of Sinkhan. The boatman told me that on the right side of the river is the dolphin pit where Irrawaddy dolphins feed.

“After tissue banana plantations have spread not only in Kachin State, but also down to the banks of the Irrewaddy in Sagaing Region, I also heard that they poisoned the fish by using banana drugs (herbicide)when fishing.”

In addition, after the dam was built a decade ago, river flow and silt sediment delivery decreased, and the alluvial islands were no longer as fertile as before. The Tarpin, Shweli, Muu, Myitnge (also known as Dukhtawaddy) rivers which flow into the Irrawaddy, have already reduced its water flow and silt delivery capacity.

Therefore, river water is being poisoned by the widespread use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in plantations. There are many acres of cultivated land along the banks of the Irrawaddy, and there is a need to carefully investigate the conditions of river water poisoning and fish breeding due to agricultural chemicals.

December 14, 2019 Banana plantations on the banks of the Irrawaddy Rivernear Sue Khan Bridge Tissu  / Khin Sanda Nyunt
Banana plantations on the banks of the Irrawaddy River near Sinn Khan Bridge on December 14, 2019 (Photo by Khin Sanda Nyunt)

At the same time, factories on the banks of the Irrawaddy River need to be thoroughly checked for waste water disposal. For example, I witnessed and heard the wastewater from the Great Wall Sugar Factory in Maung Kone Village on the banks of the River is discharged directly into the river, and the aquatic lives, fish, dolphins can no longer live along the downstream side of the discharge point and the river could not be used. To this day, the factory is still disposing of waste water without a proper system.

Also, I personally saw that the pollution of Dukhtawaddy River and Irrawaddy River due to waste water from factories in Mandalay Township continues. Along the middle of the river, there is a lot of river sand and stone quarrying for construction works, which hinders the free movement of fish in the river.

WWF's 2018 report on the Irrawaddy River and Myanmar's economy has already stated that the most important problem affecting the upper and middle reaches of the river is river pollution.

Critically Endangered Species - Irrawaddy Dolphins

If we have talked about the Irrawaddy dolphin issue, it would be logical to talk about the issue of the entire river. Most importantly, we cannot forget the declining state of Irrawaddy's fish resources and the weakness of the fish resources management system.

“There is a need to comprehensively examine the causal chain behind having a system that mainly focuses on the need to increase the annual government budget in administration and lack of maintenance measures, estruction of the environment of the Irrawaddy River,  decreasing fish resources in the river, the widespread use of illegal fishing methods.”

However, I noticed that currently, prohibited fishing methods for Irrewaddy river conversion are presented to increase awareness and work in progress regarding the death of the Irrawaddy dolphin, and taking actions to perpetrators. But making arrests is no longer enough.

The need and weakness of the system, the environmental degradation of the river should also be pointed out. Better measures for the conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphins can only be taken if the fish resources and environmental health of the Irrawaddy River are considered comprehensively. Then, it will be possible to protect endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins.

8 deaths from March to the end of October 2020/Alex Diment/Mongabay
Irrawaddy Dolphin (Photo by - Alex Diment/Mongabay)

Translator’s Suggestion

Protecting our Marine Life

It’s important that we take action now if we want to save this majestic species from extinction. Local communities must reduce pollution levels by implementing stricter regulations on industrial waste disposal and monitoring unregulated activities such as illegal fishing practices or the use of explosives near marine habitats. We also have protected areas where dolphins can breed safely away from human disturbance or exploitation. If we all do our part, we can ensure that future generations will be able to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitats for many years to come!

The plight of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin serves as a stark reminder that we must protect our planet’s marine life if we want it to survive for future generations. To save this majestic creature from extinction, we must reduce pollution levels by implementing stricter regulations on industrial waste disposal and creating protected areas where dolphins can breed safely away from human disturbance or exploitation. Together, let’s do our part for our beloved Irrawaddy River!

Author - Khin Sanda Nyunt

Translator - Dora Han

February 17, 2023