Authorities in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces have pledged to step up law enforcement activities in the Mekong River dolphin protection and conservation areas.

The commitment came following a stern order from Prime Minister Hun Sen. On January 2, the prime minister ordered the two provincial authorities to establish permanent protected areas along the river, and enforce an “absolute ban” on all fishing.

“The dolphin’s area must be completely protected. The presence of the species contributes to tourism,” he said.

He ordered that floating barriers be employed to designate the fishing-free zones, and ordered that floating markets be established to attract further tourists.

Men Kong, spokesman for the Stung Treng Provincial Administration, told The Post on January 4 that the administration was currently drawing up new legal mechanisms and policies that would protect the province’s remaining dolphins.

“Freshwater dolphins play an important role in attracting tourists, which creates many job opportunities for local residents,” he said.

Kong said the provincial Administrative Unity Command had ordered a January 3 province-wide crackdown on all fisheries crimes in local communities, especially within conservation areas.

Mok Ponlok, director of the Kratie Fisheries Administration, told The Post that fishing nets were now completely banned on the Mekong River in Kratie province.

“They pose the greatest danger to the dolphins, as they can easily become entangled in them. All nets are banned, even those used by small families,” he said.

Also known as Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris), the friendly creatures are known for their bulging foreheads and short beaks, once inhabited almost the full length of the Mekong River, but are now restricted to a 180km stretch from Kratie to the border with Laos.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The local population has declined due to habitat loss and destructive fishing. The population was recorded as 200 in 1997, but is now estimated at 90, with the Worldwide Fund for Nature Cambodia (WWF) recording 11 deaths in 2022.

In a statement, the WWF called on the authorities to “implement appropriate measures to immediately address the mortality rate” posed by the threat of fishing nets and electric fishing in the dolphin’s protected areas.

Sun Keng, who has been a tour boat driver at the Anlong Kampi Dolphin Conservation Area in Kratie province for more than two decades, told The Post that electro-fishing in the area could not be condoned.

To assist other families to transition from fishing, he suggested that the authorities create alternative businesses and provide interest-free loans to help people establish new livelihoods. He also urged the public to visit the area and take a tour.

“Right now, this is the only place where you will see Irrawaddy dolphins in their natural habitat,” he said.