29 November 2012
Fishing with dolphins in Myanmar
The vital bond between river creatures and man.
You want to catch a fish or two in Myanmar? Just call a dolphin.
That's what fishermen on the Ayeyarwady River - the fabled "road" in Rudyard Kipling rollicking poem - have been doing for generations, literally calling these high IQ creatures to help them net a bountiful harvest.
The Ayeyarwady dolphin, or Orcaella brevirostris, is found along stretches of Myanmar's mighty waterway as well as other large rivers, estuaries and freshwater lagoons in South and Southeast Asia. Critically endangered across most of its range (they number between 42 and 73 in the Ayeyarwady), it's become an iconic, banner species for wildlife conservation and eco-tourism in recent years. Our second cruise ship in Myanmar, Orcaella, is named for this beautiful creature and passengers will be able to learn about efforts being made to reverse its decline.
The man-dolphin teamwork goes like this: fishermen tap the sides of their boats with a wooden stick and stir the water with oars to call the graceful but bulky helpers (as long as eight feet and weighing 300 pounds). Like cattle being rounded up, they herd schools of fish toward the boat in ever-tightening circles until nets can be cast. The dolphins scoot away to avoid being caught themselves but then return to claim their reward - some nice fresh fish from the nets.
This cooperative fishing increases the size of catches up to threefold, according to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has helped the government set up a protected area along a 46-mile stretch of the river between Mingun and Kyaukmyaung. Here, all that endangers the snub-nosed marine mammals across their range are proscribed - fishing by electrocution, dams, gold mining and use of gillnets in which dolphins often become entangled. Our Orcaella cruise ship team is in discussion with WCS to help support this project.
"Our work has certainly reduced the threats and galvanised attention on the plight of these creatures," says Brian Smith, a dolphin expert with WCS. Challenges remain but there's hope now that "Mother River," as the Burmese call the Ayeyarwady, will not lose its fabled residents, or the fishermen their helpful pals.