As the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin population steadily declines, conservation groups have voiced concern that the critically endangered species may be swimming toward extinction if drastic measures are not soon taken to protect them.
The numbers tell a depressing tale: From 2011 to 2014, 23 dolphins were recorded dead. But, already, in the first months of 2015, four more have perished.
“In just [the first] three-and-a-half months of 2015, four dolphins have died … that is a very worrying sign,” WWF-Cambodia country director Chhit Sam Ath told reporters in Phnom Penh yesterday. “This must remind all stakeholders to help prevent [this].”
WWF estimates that only 85 Irrawady dolphins remain in the wild.
According to Sam Ath, old age, fishing nets and changes in their ecosystem are driving the dolphin’s population down.
This year, out of the four recorded dead, two dolphins died of old age, while the other two died trapped in fishing nets.
But though he considers fishing nets relatively easy to handle, fighting both natural and unnatural changes to the Kingdom’s waterways may prove much harder to overcome, Sam Ath said.
“These are the main problems we must solve together,” he said. “Net-catching, we can handle, but the other issues may be difficult to tackle,” he said, adding that the upcoming dry season presents a particularly difficult challenge.
Dolphins are an invaluable indicator of the health of the country’s fresh waterways, according to WWF, and their “decline could signal a potentially devastating decline in the health of the entire river ecosystem”.
To combat the species’ demise, Sam Ath said that rangers will stand guard day and night to help combat illegal fishing operations that could potentially net other dolphins. Sixty-eight rangers at 16 stations are set to patrol the dolphins’ habitat in Stung Treng and Kratie.
“If we do not halt this now, far more than four could die – especially during the dry season, when the water level decreases and the dolphins congregate in one place,” he said.
Sam Ath did, however, say that fishing nets will be allowed to be cast at a specified buffer zone, though fisherman must be present in order to help any dolphins that get caught in their nets.
“If they don’t comply, our rangers will confiscate them,” he said.
Fisheries Administration officials could not be reached for comment.
Separately yesterday, authorities in Kampong Cham’s Kampong Siem district began investigating a possible case of mass poisoning after hundreds of kilograms of fish appeared belly up in a creek frequented by locals for fishing. Endrel village chief Ly Bun Thoeurn said it was the second time in a week that the Kean Chrey creek has been awash in dead fish.
He said villagers had ignored authorities’ warnings not to eat the fish but that no one had yet fallen ill as a result.