Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar are under threat from over fishing. Photo: Alamy
Dolphin whisperer U Aung Thinn taps a hand-carved stick on the side of his slender boat and patiently waits. As he spots the dolphins’ grey arches gracefully moving towards him, he gathers his fishing equipment.
One of the dolphins flicks its tail out of the water, sending the signal for Thinn to cast his net. The mammals corral fish towards the boat. As the fish swarm into the net, the dolphins devour the inevitable overspill.
However, like the dolphins, the future of Myanmar’s cooperative fishing is under threat.
“The big difference is the fish population, ” says 51-year-old Thinn. When he started fishing at the age of 12, his hauls were much heavier. “It’s difficult to compete with electrofishing now, and some people have to work in other jobs to make a living.”
Thinn is one of about 60 remaining cooperative fishermen who work alongside the small pocket of Irrawaddy dolphins along this stretch of the Irrawaddy River close to Mandalay. The latest WWF count in February recorded 76 dolphins in Myanmar, where they are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. Worldwide, they are also classified as endangered, with only about 3,000 of the species estimated to remain.
Thinn’s father taught him how fishermen and dolphins can work together. Featuring in folktales that date back centuries, the method has seen generations of Burmese build a mutually beneficial relationship with the majestic water mammals.
Pollution, climate change and illegal fishing have depleted fish stocks, and cooperative fishing – once revered for landing hauls up to six times larger than other methods – has been replaced with modern techniques.
“It’s difficult to learn, and the younger generation do not want to do it now; fishing is becoming harder and it’s not economically viable,” says Paul Eshoo, project adviser for Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project. “Cheaper nets and fishing equipment make that form of fishing more efficient.”
In a bid to save the Irrawaddy dolphins while providing additional income for cooperative fishing communities, last year Eshoo joined forces with local tour company Living Irrawaddy Travel to launch Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project.
The social business runs one- to three-day trips from Mandalay into the heart of rural Myanmar. All profits are ploughed back into the seven cooperative fishing communities the company works with, and towards protecting the dolphins.
One conservation project sees Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project rent part of the Irrawaddy River, where it enforces strict regulations and hires villagers to patrol the waters for illegal fishing.
“The whole river was being developed for fishing contracts where people can bid to rent parts of it,” says Eshoo. “This incentivises overfishing and the use of illegal fishing methods, so we invested in a main area where the dolphins are, to protect it.”