Akkas Ali is a fisherman from Kachua, Vasha Bazar in the Bagerhat district of Bangladesh. He has been fishing in the Bay of Bengal for almost 20 years and has been a witness to the slaughter of dolphins. Most of these deaths were accidental – the dolphins became entangled in the nets of fishermen, and died. In the last two years three dolphins were killed after being trapped in Akkas Ali’s own fishing nets.
At least five species of dolphins, one species of porpoise and two species of whales are found in the waters between the coast of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, and Swatch-of-No-Ground, a deep underwater canyon in the Bay of Bengal. The rivers of the mangrove forest are the habitat of Gangetic river dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins.
According to several surveys conducted between 2002 and 2010 by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) Bangladesh Program and their Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project there are about 225 Ganges River dolphins in the Sundarbans waterways. They share these waters with a portion of the population of an estimated 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins inhabiting Bangladesh’s coastal waters. This is by far the largest population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the world. About 1,400 finless porpoises, over 2,000 bottlenose dolphins and an estimated 620 of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, along with pan-tropical spotted dolphins, spinner dolphins, false killer whales and Bryde’s whales are estimated to inhabit Bangladesh’s coastal and deep-sea canyon waters.
Most fisherfolk in Bangladesh do not intentionally harm dolphins. But, just like elsewhere in the world, many dolphins drown because they become entangled in fishing gear. This is about to change for Akkas Ali, as he will now become their saviour, and will even help researchers conduct study on dolphins and other marine aquatic species.
Turning fishermen into conservators
The change involves two simple things: equipment and training. As the fishermen could not monitor their nets, they did not know when a dolphin became entangled. Now they have been issued binoculars, a relatively expensive piece of equipment for the fishermen. “Using binoculars we will see that dolphins are trapped in our nets, and immediately cut nets so that they can free themselves,” Akkas Ali proudly told thetheirpole.net.
Akkas Ali is not alone. WCS trained nine fishermen to help in dolphin conservation in April 2016. The fishermen have also been supplied equipment to help in this task, including binoculars, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and cameras to help them monitor dolphin movement in the sea during their fishing excursions.
“By releasing live animals from their nets, fisherfolk can save dolphins. And many do that. But it’s not always that easy, especially because nets are often set at night or are so long that entangled dolphins can’t be detected quickly,” said WCS Bangladesh Education and Livelihood Director, Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur.
In the coastal waters, she said, WCS has established a citizen science network among gillnet fishermen who monitor their nets for dolphin entanglements, rescue live dolphins when they become entangled, and collect information and samples from dolphins found already dead.
“We provide them with a GPS and training on how to use it to navigate to safety during increasingly frequent extreme storms. This has proved to be an effective incentive to engage fishermen in marine megafauna conservation,” Mansur added.
A win-win situation
In exchange the fishermen are happy to help monitor dolphins in the rivers and the sea. “We generally go to sea for 15 day trips to catch fish,” Akkas Ali said. “During that time we will count dolphins and identify their species. We will use GPS to map their movements and take photos.” Hopefully they will also make short videos of the dolphins as they swim out to sea, he added, keeping a watch on the endangered species throughout the year.
If the fishermen find dead dolphins in the sea, they will collect a piece of their hides. Upon returning to their homes, they will provide all data they collect from the sea to the WCS researchers.
Zahangir Alom, WCS Bangladesh Program Senior Researcher and Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project Manager, said the role of the fishermen was critical not only in saving the dolphins, but also to help in research. “We go to sea during winter to collect data on dolphins, but we cannot do so during the monsoon due to adverse weather. The fishermen can,” he explained.
With the help of the data and samples the fishermen can provide, Alom hopes to identify the dolphin species in the region and their habitats. He also hopes the new information will help WCS map more accurately the risks that the dolphins face as well the trends among the sea mammals.
Steps to save dolphins
This is part of a wider effort in Bangladesh to protect the dolphin population. In 2014 the country declared 1,738 square kilometres in the Bay of Bengal a marine protected area. Unplanned fishing has been prohibited and the access of ships to the area has been restricted to ensure safe habitat for the dolphins.
According to forest department officials, the river dolphins found in the Sundarbans move mostly in the rivers Andharmanik, Dhangmari, Dudhmukhi, Betmore, Chandpai and Patakata of the Sundarbans East Zone. Therefore, the Bangladesh Forest Department created three dolphin sanctuaries covering 32 square kilometres of the rivers and canals in the mangrove forest in 2012.
“Earlier, we identified three hotspots of dolphins in the Sundarbans and have already declared these spots as sanctuaries,” Chief Conservator of Forest Mohammad Yunus Ali told thethirdpole.net.
Still in danger
Although the government of Bangladesh has taken steps to conserve dolphins, many of them are merely announcements without serious follow through. Zahangir Alom, who is also the coordinator of BCDP, said fishermen are still using banned nets to catch fish in the designated areas, and ocean-going vessels are still using the area as a thoroughfare. According to survey data collected by the BCDP project, at least 130 dolphins were killed in the riverine, coastal and marine waters of Bangladesh from January 2007 to April 2016 either because they were trapped in fishing nets or injured by the propellers of ships.
Unchecked fishing continues in the Sundarbans and vessels carrying toxic chemicals move through the rivers. A tanker carrying about 350,000 litres of furnace oil capsized in the Shela River of the Sundarbans, a dolphin habitat, on December 9, 2014 while a cargo ship sank on March 19, 2016.
Three years after the announcement of dolphin sanctuaries, the authorities concerned are yet to finalise a management plan to protect dolphins in the Sundarbans’ rivers. “We have already prepared the management plan and sent it to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. But the ministry is yet to finalise the plan,” Yunus Ali said.
Once the plan is finalised, he said, unplanned catching of fishes in the Sundarbans’ rivers and water vessel movement on the rivers could be checked that will help ensure safe havens for the dolphins.
This article was corrected on 1 June 2016, reflecting inputs received by thethirdpole.net from WCS.