Myanmar Marine Life, Swimming Against the Tide

whale shark
Irrawaddy River Dolphin

The Irrawaddy River Dolphin is much endangered

In September 2015 a rare baby Irrawaddy River Dolphin was spotted in a protected area of the river between Mandalay and Kyaukmyaug. This sighting precipitated the Myanmar Wildlife Conservation Society’s annual survey of the Irrawaddy River dolphin beginning on February 5.

The sighting of the new baby dolphin is important in the light of the dwindling population. The 2015 survey shows that 58 dolphins were found in the same area, compared with 72 in 2004. According to the Ministry of Livestock’s Department of Fisheries, illegal electric shock fishing killed most while some were caught in fishing nets. The government has banned electro-fishing nationwide, and in 2015 the government made an agreement with conservationists to form a team to patrol the river every two months.

Another marine species has made an unusual appearance in Myanmar waters. Fishermen reported spotting whale sharks early in January along a migratory route off the northwestern coast. Marine Conservation Society research shows that the sharks are much rarer in the northwest than in the south. Recent sightings near two popular tourist beaches emphasise the risks confronting the world’s largest fish, and the challenges of enforcing laws against hunting vulnerable species. The sightings also emphasise the contrast in the way the fish are treated.

In early January, fishing nets entangled a whale shark swam about five kilometres from the Ngwe Saung Yacht Club & Resort.

Resort director U Phone Kyaw Moe Myint said fishermen slaughtered the animal due to the high black market value of its body parts, sold for traditional Chinese medicine and food. “There was already a buyer lined up for the head and fins, but I don’t know who it was or how much was being paid,” he told The Myanmar Times.

Former environmental protection advisor to the government, Oliver E Soe Thet believes the presence of these fish should be employed to increase tourism. “You can make more money if you protect these fish than if you kill them and only make money once,” he said. “People have to be educated; it is a sensitive issue.”