Irrawaddy dolphins in Thai freshwater threatened by extinction

MCOT online news 12 Jul 10;

Harmful fishing practices in Thailand are pushing the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, an aquatic mammal known scientifically as Orcaella brevirostris, toward extinction here in southern Thailand, according to the Southern Marine and Coastal Resources Research Center and a team of Irrawaddy dolphin researchers and watchers.

The aquatic animals live in Southeast Asia's freshwater areas and estuaries, and are critically endangered according to the World Wildlife Fund. In Thailand, the animal is found only in the northern part of Songkhla Lake called 'Talay Luang' in the southern provinces of Phatthalung and Songkhla.

However, the death rate of the animals there has continually increased, which raises concern for their survival.

According to Thailand's marine centre survey conducted in 2006-2008, on average some four to seven dead dolphins washed up on shore, while the number of the animals has dwindled to as few as 36. In January this year alone, six Irrawaddy dolphins were found dead, entangled in fishing nets.

Apart from incorrect fishing practices, the shallow condition of Songkhla Lake, a reduction in marine natural resources, and environmental degradation are all factors which have led to habitat loss for the animals, and which consequently affects their continued existence.

Fishermen in Songkhla's Krasae Sin district said their grandparents in years past normally saw hundreds of Irrawaddy dolphins in the lake, and the creatures were not shy when they encountered humans. For several years, however, the number of dolphins has dramatically decreased, and recently the have not been seen at all.

"In the past, those guarding boats at night said they saw dolphins that were very used to people, but now they say the animals have become frightened of fishing trawlers during these past 3 or 4 years," said Uthai Yodchan, a local fisherman who affirmed the disappearances, noting their disappearance entirely this year.

An academic at the Southern Marine and Coastal Resources Research Center said it had taken the dolphins over a century to adapt to live in freshwater zones.

"Irrawaddy dolphins in Songkhla Lake are able to survive in freshwater. It took them about a hundred years to adapt to live in this kind of water," said Santi Nilawat, an academic.

Together with the surveyors' team for the dolphins, the Centre recently followed the animals' situation. The survey recorded the specific location where dolphins were found so that data could be collected as useful tools for the conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphins, and that inappropriate fishing practices can be monitored to prevent the species from becoming their victims.

"We focus on building and raising awareness among [the local population] that Irrawaddy dolphins have been the signature animal in Phatthalung. We are also thinking of developing the dolphins' territory here in order that it becomes a tourist attraction for Songkhla Lake's Talay Luang," said protection officer, Jamnong Glaicharoen, in the Talay Luang Non-Hunting Area.

Buoys were placed to indicate dolphin territory contained within 100 square kilometres as a dolphin-protection zone. The markers are also signs for fishermen to avoid fishing in that specific area where legal action can be taken for violations.

However, sadly for the searching team, on a recent day of searching for dolphins at the boundary line of those zones in the lake, a calf dolphin less than one year old and a giant catfish were found dead on the water surface, but not one living Irrawaddy dolphin.

An initial assumption by Santi, the academic, said the fish may have been caught in fishing nets in the protected area.

"There might have been some fishing trawler coming into the premises 4-5 days before we found the two fish. Technically, if the mother dolphin has been dead for, say, a couple of days, the calf will have no milk to consume, then it will also have to die," according to Santi.

The number of fishing nets and other improper fishing gears have been increasingly used by fishermen despite their danger to this vulnerable species.

"Not many people were using trawlers or fishing nets in the beginning. But as fishing for giant catfish generally makes high profits of more than Bt100,000 each time (US$3,300), several others have followed the action. They have bought more and more trawlers to catch the fish, which also accidentally affects the decreasing number of dolphins," said Jesada Tangmanee, officer, Southern Marine and Coastal Resources Research Center.

How to preserve the number of Irrawaddy dolphins in Thai freshwater is not only a question for officials and related agencies, but also for fishermen and all of us to be aware of this critical situation and to realise the beauty and the enjoyment when we can appreciate the sea creatures.

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