Fishing nets, introduced species threaten the survival of Irrawaddy dolphins,
The latest group of 14 Irrawaddy dolphins recently found in Songkhla Lake in Songkhla Province. Experts say a conservation plan is needed to prevent them from becoming extinct. (Photo: Ministry of Marine and Coastal Resources)
The last group of 14 Irrawaddy dolphins in Southern Thailand’s Songkhla Lake could become extinct within eight years if a conservation plan is not implemented immediately, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources says.
Pornsri Suthanaruk, the deputy head of the department, told the bangkok post dolphin numbers have declined over the past 30 years due to the widespread use of large fishing nets, which has resulted in approximately 60% of dolphin deaths.
The department estimates the death rate of the Irrawaddy dolphin at three per year. However, the birth rate is unknown.
Her latest research, conducted using aerial photographs and an acoustic method, found that only 14 of the animals remain in the region, she said.
Alarmed by the low number, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Varawut Silpa-archa, has instructed the ministry to prepare a conservation and conservation plan.
This would also address the issue of artificial breeding to boost the dolphin population and improve their genetics to be more resilient.
The Irrawaddy dolphins in Songkhla Lake are the only ones in the country to live in a freshwater habitat.
With its round head and short snub nose, the Irrawaddy dolphin is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but those that live in freshwater areas including the Mekong River, Ayeyarwady or Irrawaddy River in Myanmar , and Chilka Lake in India is considered critically endangered.
Irrawaddy dolphins can live in both freshwater and coastal areas, especially brackish water, mangrove areas or river deltas.
The latest group of freshwater dolphins is said to have swum from the Gulf of Thailand to Lake Songkhla in search of food. But for years it has undergone more geographic changes that have effectively captured the dolphins, meaning they cannot return to the sea, Ms Pornsri said.
Songkhla Lake is the largest freshwater lagoon in the country. It covers an area of 1,000 square kilometers spread over 15 districts in Phatthalung, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla.
“We calculate that the dolphins in the lake will disappear within eight years if we don’t have a plan to protect them.
“The biggest threat is the fishing equipment. We need to eliminate this threat to help the dolphins survive,” she said.
The department will explore the possibility of announcing a designated area, approximately 100 square kilometers, as protected habitat for dolphins. The area may be on the northern part of the lake, between Songkhla and Phattalung.
Known to locals as Thale Luang, the area covers approximately 458 square meters and is connected to the non-hunting area Thale Noi in Phatthalung.
The department also needs the cooperation of local fishermen to raise awareness and knowledge about the conservation of Irrawaddy dolphins, she said, adding that a patrol system will be set up to prevent illegal fishing gear that could harm them.
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of the Faculty of Fisheries at Kasetsart University, who is also the department team leader for the Irrawaddy dolphin recovery project, said the mission to increase the population of the species in the lake is challenging.
Conservation policies will only get local people’s cooperation if they see clear benefits from it, he said.
“It is not easy to convince fishermen to change their fishing tools to help save Irrawaddy dolphins. We can reason with them that saving the dolphins could lead to more tourist activities that ultimately benefit the locals living around The lake lives in. But if the conservation plan is not successful, moving the dolphins is another option,” said Mr Thon.
He said the reduction in their numbers is also the result of poor marine life management, with local authorities releasing alien fish species into the lake, especially giant catfish, to boost local incomes.
Fishermen set up bigger and stronger nets in the lake to catch the giant catfish, which also trap the dolphins. Mr Thon estimates there are approximately 30,000 sets of fishing gear set up in the lake to catch fish.
The locals love dolphins
Meanwhile, Chalermchai Suwanarak, head of the Ministry of Fisheries, said the department has been involved in Songkhla’s development plan since 2003.
This focuses on increasing freshwater animal populations and controlling illegal fishing tools in the lake. It has also taken steps to protect and conserve Irrawaddy dolphins.
He said the department has worked closely with locals and urged them to stop using giant fishing nets.
He said the department has benefited from strong partnerships with local communities.
He also maintained that it has no policy to reintroduce any more alien fish into the lake.
“As a resident of Songkhla, I could say that the locals have a strong bond with the dolphins. They don’t want to do anything to harm them,” he said.
“Their declining population is the result of inbreeding because there is only one pod in the lake. We need to conduct a study to address the problem to ensure their long-term survival.”
He said the department is willing to work with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment to remove all fishing equipment in the protected area if the Department of Marine Coastal Resources calls it a protected area for the dolphins.