Population numbers of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong River have plumped for decades, dropping from 200 in 1997 to around 90 today due to habitat loss and uncontrolled fishing.
In an attempt to save the species, Cambodian premier Hun Sen ordered the implementation of conservation zones in the Mekong River on Monday, according to the AFP. The initiative comes after several dolphins have been found dead in the past year.
“The Mekong River, which is home to near-extinct dolphins and fish species, must be well managed so that dolphins will not die from entanglement in gillnets,” said Sen. “The dolphin areas must be protected completely.” Gillnets are nets placed along parts of the river to snare fish.
Authorities will set up floating markers around protection zones at the river, which will indicate an “absolute ban” on all fishing in designated areas.
Irrawaddy dolphins are known for their bulging foreheads and short beaks. They are an essential asset for locals that offers tour guides for foreigners to spectate the dolphin in its natural habitat.
The Mekong River, which also borders Laos, has long gone through human developments that make it difficult for the dolphins to survive. Other than illegal fishing that unintentionally catches the mammal, hydropower dams funded by Chinese involvement in partly state-owned enterprises tamper the river’s ecosystem.
“[A] big number of fish that need to move upstream for breeding and spawning are unable to pass the dam barrier during the dry season. This leads to reduced fish stock in the transboundary deep pool habitats that would affect dolphin prey and have affected daily food consumption of people of both countries,” Seng Teak, country director for WWF Cambodia, told The Third Pole.
The consequences have been enormous, as the last Irrawaddy dolphin was confirmed dead in 2022 declaring the species extinct in Laos. The same fate could reach dolphins in Cambodia’s territory.
“The numbers in the [transboundary] pool have plummeted over the last few years, due to multiple threats,” said Lan Mercado, Asia-Pacific director of WWF in a 2022 statement. “Including hydropower dam construction causing disruptions to river flow and reduced fish abundance, drowning in gill-nets, and the use of damaging fishing practices such as electrofishing and overfishing.”
Alarm raised after deaths
Cambodian premier Hun Sen orders come just a week after conservationists raised concerns after three Irrawaddy dolphins died within 10 days of each other.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), such deaths of healthy dolphins in a brief timeframe indicates ”an increasingly alarming situation and the need for intensive law enforcement be urgently conducted in the dolphin habitats,” it said on Monday last week writes the AP.
It is believed that the deaths stemmed from entanglement in an illegal fishing line. The WWF urged law enforcement to help save the species.
WWF said that a total of 29 dolphins have died in the past three years. 11 of them in 2022 alone.
What is believed to have been the last Irrawaddy dolphin located in Cambodia’s northeastern region of the Mekong River was found dead in February 2022. It had reportingly been seen tangled in a fishing net about a week earlier.
The mammals are usually found in packs of 6 members.