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River Allies

River Allies

In the waters of the Irrawaddy river, traditional fishermen and wild dolphins work in harmony to fish. Will the threats facing the river allow this traditional relationship to survive, asks Demelza Stokes.

Listed in Appendix I of CITES, and listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the Irrawaddy dolphin persists in fragmented populations across its range countries. Photo:  Swarup Kumar Bera.

“Did there exist any more remarkable instance of symbiosis between human beings and a population of wild animals? She could not think of one. There was truly no limit, it seemed, to the cetacean gift for springing surprises.” – The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh

Such is Piya’s discovery of cooperative fishing on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy river in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, which actually takes place mainly in the Indian Sundarbans, and where Ghosh’s protagonist, a cetologist, is studying the behaviour of the Sundarbans’ population of Irrawaddy dolphins Orcaella brevirostris.

Orcaella brevirostris’ range lies in pockets of coastal waters, rivers and lakes across a large swathe of the tropical and sub-tropical Indo-Pacific region. They ply the estuarine waters from India’s northeastern coast of the Bay of Bengal to the Philippines, with freshwater sub-populations living in three large rivers – Indonesia’s Mahakam, the Mekong in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar.

Maung Lay is one of the bearers of the tradition here in Myanmar. He is from one of the estimated 100 families that work cooperatively with the Irrawaddy dolphins, where the practice has continued for at least 150 years. “No one can understand the language of the dolphins, but we know each other very well,” he says. He has plied the river, fishing with some of these dolphins for over two decades, and he recognises different individuals.

Remarkable accounts of cooperative fishing between humans and dolphins have been documented in Brazil, Mauritania, Australia and Myanmar. These fishing cooperatives are extraordinary in that they occur between wild dolphins and humans, and that both species adapt their behaviour to cooperate. Cooperative fishing is mutually beneficial, and has evolved without training or capture. Both species acquire the skills inter-generationally, meaning that this is a cultural practice that is inherited and learnt.

Maung Lay and the dolphins have developed a stealthy coordination of communication via audio and visual signals. Maung Lay calls his accomplices with a gentle chirruping sound, taps a stick rhythmically against the side of the boat, and pats his oar on the water’s surface. When the dolphins have found fish, they flick their grey fins or pitch their flukes above the surface, betraying the fish’s location to Maung Lay. Maung Lay responds by pitching his net in an arc, the weights in the net dropping in a wide circle over their prey. In 2007, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) estimated that fishing with the help of dolphins increased fishermen’s catches by over five times. The dolphins reap their share of the fish that escape the nets.

But increasingly there’s not much left to share.

In a spectacular show of inter-species cooperation, when the dolphins find fish, they pitch their flukes above the surface to alert the fishermen. Photo: Saw Htoo Tha Po/WCS Myanmar.


Today, cooperative fishing in Myanmar is threatened by a deluge of anthropogenic and environmental factors. In the time that we spend with Maung Lay, he calls in the dolphins – but the net’s clutches remain empty, cast after cast. Electro-fishermen are taking all the fish, he tells us. Electro-fishing is illegal, but continues relatively unhampered in Myanmar, and is rapidly depleting the already severely strained fish stocks in the Irrawaddy.

Gangs of electro-fishermen have taken to using this destructive method, mostly at night. They send electric currents into the water through metal rods or nets threaded with wires to stun most aquatic life within a few metres of their boats. Stunned or dead fish then float to the surface and are easily hauled up en masse. Some have attributed this dangerous fishing tactic to the otherwise unexplained deaths of two dolphins in 2014. Maung Lay says that electro-fishing came into vogue in 2005, and in the last 10 years, times have been harder for him. The dolphin fishermen have to spend more time fishing, because many of the fish are gone by morning, he explains as we witness another fruitless cast.

“The electro-fishermen are fearless because they work in groups, and have faster boats so can easily outrun us,” says Kyaw Hla Thein, a project manager at WCS. WCS and the Department of Fisheries began collaborating to protect the dolphins in 2002. In December 2005, a protected zone was created for the dolphins’ protection – a 72 km. stretch of the river, north of Mandalay, where WCS works with the police and Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries to patrol the waters to scout for electro-fishing and other illegal fishing practices, like the use of specific gill and drag nets that are dangerous to the dolphins.

Aside from electro-fishing, commercial fishing contracts sold by the government as competitive-bid concessions for a limited time lead to an unsustainable plunder of the Irrawaddy river, according to Han Win, a dolphin expert with the fisheries department. Destructive activities upstream also affect fish populations downstream. Logging, upstream gold mining and dredging of the riverbed are all causes of habitat degradation in the Irrawaddy’s waters. “Mercury contamination from the gold mining and insecticides used in agriculture are also leading to the depletion of fisheries resources,” said Han Win.

Declining fish stocks is the main problem for the Irrawaddy’s remaining estimated dolphin population of 63. They are critically endangered, and now so is their historic partnership with Myanmar’s last dolphin callers. Puttering up and down the river between the riverside towns of Singu and Mingun, the glimpses of smoky-grey bodies breaching the surface are fleeting, often only caught after the Orcaella betray their location with the distinctive sound of a burst of exhalation.

The relationship between the Burmese fishermen and the Irrawaddy dolphins with whom they fish is extraordinary in that it is a cultural practice - inherited and learnt by both the wild dolphins and humans. Photo: Demelza Stokes.

In the times between spotting them, Maung Lay sits facing the bow, mending his net. But whilst he can mend a net barely looking at his hands, he is almost powerless to stop the forces causing this remnant of human-animal history to unravel. Unless the sharp decline in the Irrawaddy’s fish populations can be stalled, Maung Lay and his fellow cooperative dolphin fishermen are probably the last bastions of this historical relationship, dissolving fast into the great river.

Author: Demelza Stokes, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.


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