First Dead Dolphin of the Year, Conservation Worries Rise

An Irrawaddy Dolphin was found dead on March 19. Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

PHNOM PENH – An Irrawaddy Dolphin was found dead on March 19, marking the first passing of the critically endangered species for the year 2023, and alarming conservationists over their potential extinction.

The body of the about 20-year-old dolphin was discovered at the dolphin canyon in Siem Bouk district’s Koh Preah commune, about 20 kilometers south of Stung Treng city, in an area that has been recently designated as a protected zone by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The creature weighed 160 kilograms and was 2.38 meters long. It died from being trapped in gillnets, a type of vertical mesh net that is left in the water for extended periods of time to catch fish.

It had scars on the abdomen and scratches caused by the gillnets at the base of its tail and the side fins. Gillnets are believed to be the primary cause of dolphin death.

Seng Teak, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Cambodia country director, expressed regret for the loss as last year has been particularly deadly for dolphins. While only six newborns were recorded, a total of 11 animals were reported dead.

“It is very concerning, but we can see the authorities are trying hard to protect and stop the illegal fishing in the dolphin area,” he said.

He stressed that during the dry season, all fishing activity must be banned, especially in the dolphin pools, which are deep water areas where the cetaceans live.

Yet, illegal fishing still takes place in the region. More than 32,000 cases of fishing offenses were cracked down in 2021, and 27,000 cases in 2022, said Ung Try, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration under the Ministry of Agriculture.

He added that there are 97 dolphin sanctuaries in that part of the Mekong River, of which 62 are located in Kratie province, while the other 35 are in Stung Treng province.

In late February, Prime Minister Hun Sen designated a 120-kilometer-long protection and conservation area. The new zone, which runs from the Cambodia-China Friendship Bridge in Stung Treng city to Koh Trung island in Kratie province, prohibits fishing activities using gillnets and illegal equipment.

In early January, Hun Sen also called for more protection to prevent the extinction of Irrawaddy Dolphins in Cambodia.

Teak of WWF said it is time for the public and relevant parties to take dolphin protection seriously, hoping the locals along the Mekong River halt all illegal fishing activities.

While the first census, which was carried out in 1997, found 200 individuals living in the Cambodian part of the Mekong River, the dolphin population has continued to dwindle over the years.

The latest dolphin general census, carried out in 2020, found only 89 dolphins.

Teak said WWF and teams from the Agriculture Ministry were working to collect data for a dolphin census in 2023.

Asked whether this loss can affect the data-collecting process, he said it will have a small impact on the work, but the team is still carrying on and hoping no more dolphins would be found dead.

Currently, more than 70 percent of the Mekong dolphin population is more than 20 years old, making them incapable of breeding. Irrawaddy dolphins have a life expectancy of 27 to 30 years, WWF said.

The Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin is listed as critically endangered on the red list of threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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