Legal protection and conservation efforts
The Irrawaddy dolphin is classified as Endangered, and the IUCN Red List includes 5 subpopulations as endangered out of 7. Entanglement in fishnets and habitat degradation now remain the leading issues in the conservation of these animals. Some Irrawaddy dolphin populations are classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (Mekong River sub-population), Indonesia (Mahakam River sub-population, Borneo), Myanmar (Ayeyarwady/Irrawaddy River sub-population), the Philippines (Malampaya Sound sub-population), and Thailand (Songkhla Lake sub-population).
At the international level, CITES, an international legal instrument aimed at the regulation of international trade, protects the species and includes them in Appendix I, supposedly the highest and strict protection for those animals listed there. Under Appendix I, the commercial trade of listed species is not prohibited and allowed only in exceptional circumstances and with a special permit. However, the enforcement depends on individual countries, i.e, range countries, and trade of this species, particularly, sale of these animals to dolphinariums is not the major issue presently. Initially, the Irrawaddy dolphin was listed in Appendix II but was moved to Appendix I in 2004.
The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or the Bonn Convention (CMS) is an international agreement that aims to conserve migratory species throughout their ranges. Under CMS, the Irrawaddy dolphin is listed under both Appendices I and II. The reason for being included in Appendix I is due to this species being categorized as species in danger of extinction throughout all or significant areas of their range countries. Listing under Appendix II gives this species the protection in a way that CMS Parties shall strive towards strictly protecting these animals, conserving or restoring the places where they live, mitigating obstacles to migration, and controlling other factors that might endanger them, as well as having an unfavorable conservation status. The Irrawaddy dolphin is also covered by the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region.
The CMS also has the Action Plan for the species, and the Irrawaddy dolphin is not an exception. Under the Action Plan for the Conservation of Freshwater Populations of Irrawaddy Dolphins provides some detailed information on strategies for mitigating bycatch:
Establishing core conservation areas where gillnetting is banned or severely restricted;
Promoting net attendance rules and providing training on the safe release of entangled dolphins;
Initiating programs to compensate fishers for damage caused to their nets by entangled dolphins that are safely released;
Providing alternative or diversified employment options for gillnet fishers;
Encouraging the use of fishing gear that does not harm dolphins, by altering or establishing fee structures for fishing permits to make gillnetting more expensive while decreasing the fees for nondestructive gear;
Experimenting with acoustical deterrents and reflective nets.
At the national level, in some countries, a portion of Irrawaddy dolphins was placed in wildlife sanctuaries. In Cambodia, Fisheries Law protects these animals and lists them as endangered species. In 2005, WWF established the Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project supported by the government and local communities, the aim of which was to support the survival of remaining populations of Irrawaddy dolphins through research and education. In 2012, the government of Cambodia announced a 180-km-long (110 mi) stretch of the Mekong River from eastern Kratie province to the border with Laos as a limit fishing zone, where floating houses, fishing cages, and gill nets are not allowed, except for simple fishing. This area is patrolled by a group of river guards, specifically to protect dolphins.
India protects the Irrawaddy dolphin in its Schedule I of the Wildlife Protect Act, which bans their killing, transportation, and sale of body parts.
A conservation program “Conservation Foundation for the Protection of Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia” was launched, which was focused on the protection of the population of these animals and their habitat. This program does not only educate the public but also provides monitoring of the population of these dolphins and the status of their habitat.
In 2005, the Department of Fisheries in Myanmar established a protected region of 74 km (46 mi) for the Ayeyarwady River between Mingun and Kyaukmyaung and issued a number of provisions for the protection of this species. This includes “a mandatory release of entanglement dolphins, prohibition of the catching or killing of dolphins and trade in these animals or their body parts, and the prohibition of electrofishing and gillnets more than 91 m (300 ft) long, or spaced less than 180 m (600 ft) apart.”
Read more: Catch Composition and Conservation Management of a Human–Dolphin Cooperative Cast-Net Fishery in the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar
In 2008, the Department of Forestry and Sarawak Forestry Cooperative in Sarawak, Malaysia, also established a protected area for the Irrawaddy dolphin, which included the prohibition of catching or killing of dolphins and trade in them and their body parts, as well as the prohibition of the use of gillnets.