For fishermen on the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar, the key to a good day’s catch isn’t bait or tackle; it’s a dolphin. The Irrawaddy dolphin has a knack for herding fish into nets; and that knack can increase the size of the fishermen’s catch by threefold. In turn, the endangered dolphins are paid for their services with a fish dinner—and, more important, the friendship of their human neighbors and guardians. This unique cultural tradition protects both a critically endangered wildlife population and a sustainable, local livelihood.

The government of Myanmar recently established a protected area to safeguard the cooperative fishery. Spanning 70 kilometers of the Ayeyarwady River, this protected area supports one third of the river’s population of Irrawaddy dolphins.

“This is a big step forward toward saving this cetacean in the Ayeyarwady River and the fishery that benefits both humans and dolphins,” said WCS researcher Brian D. Smith, who has conducted research on the species in the region for several years. “It is a win-win situation for all.”

The small, beakless Irrawaddy dolphin measures up to eight feet in length. The dolphin frequents the coasts, estuaries, and freshwater lagoons of southeast Asia. It is threatened throughout its range by incidental catches and habitat degradation. Electrocution from illegal electric fishing, entanglement in gill nets, mercury poisoning, and habitat loss from gold mining operations in the river have jeopardized the Ayeyarwady River’s dolphin population. Recent surveys of the river conducted by Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries and WCS found that the species’ range had declined by some 60 percent, and that only 59 to 72 individuals remained in a region approximately 1,000 kilometers from the sea. In response to these findings, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) designated the population as “critically endangered.”

The new protected area will boost awareness of the Irrawaddy dolphin and its unique role in the river’s livelihoods. In addition, patrols will enforce the prohibition of electric fishing and gold mining, and a systematic monitoring program will be initiated for the species. A recent survey conducted by WCS and the Myanmar Department of Fisheries demonstrated that a ban on gold mining in the Ayeyarwady has completely eliminated this threat from the river.

Learn more about our efforts to protect Irrawaddy dolphins and other endangered porpoises and dolphins in Myanmar, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh by visiting the Asian Freshwater and Coastal Cetacean Program.