Learning to fish with the Ayeyawady Dolphins

Photo - WCS (Myanmar) , Teza Hlaing

With contribution from U Kyaw Hla Thein

Recently, good news for Ayeyawady Dolphin lovers was announced stating that the number of Irrawaddy Dolphins had increased by seven this year bringing the total population of the river to 76. The good news was concluded by a jointly conducted survey by the Department of Fisheries and Myanmar’s Wildlife Conservation Society along the river between Mandalay and Bamaw. The findings of the survey also supported an extension to the current conservation area and proposed the promotion of dolphin watching for travellers in the area. As a result, seven villages located within the area have been chosen for the implementation of a community-based tourism project in Mandalay Region where travellers may learn how to fish with the dolphins.

The Ayeyawady Dolphin of Myanmar and its way of life is gaining the interest of to travellers – especially as this is a unique area where local fishermen actually catch their fish with the mutual cooperation of the dolphins. Domestic and international travellers alike who come to the area and observe this practice can indirectly help and support efforts for the establishment of community-based tourism and ecotourism in the country.

My Magical Myanmar has been in correspondence with U Kyaw Hla Thein, Assistant Project Manager of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Myanmar, who shared his experience about implemening ecotourism connected with Ayeyawady Dolphins and their assistance to fishermen.

How does the Ayeyawady Dolphin assist fishermen? Why? Could you please share your experience about it? And how do fishermen work on the river with help of the dolphins?

According to our surveys and studies, it has been learnt that Ayeyawady Dolphin and net-casting fish catchers have been working in this mutually cooperative way of catching fish since 100 years ago. When a fisherman makes a sound by tapping his wooden boat with a small wooden stick sharpened at one end, the dolphins actually usher fish to the fisherman’s boat. At the same time, the fisherman at the rear of the boat has to beat the water surface twice in timing with the oar. They also make a verbal sound “Katu katu.” Then the leading dolphin gives a signal by breaching the surface of the water near the boat with its tail, the fisherman casts a net to easily catch the fish already gathered thanks to the dolphins. The dolphins can then easily eat fish which have become disoriented by the net or have popped out of the net.

If the fisherman does not see a good place for casting the net, he drags the oar along the water’s surface to give a signal to the dolphins to show this is not a good place to fish. The fishermen say that they can catch fish a total weight of 108 to 144 lbs in one net-throwing. They say they can never catch the fish without help of the dolphins. Their preservation of such traditional and unique fishing practice encourages tourists come and watch it.

How can travellers observe and participate in the activity? What are WCS and the Department of Fisheries doing to implement this?

If foreign travellers want to watch this mutual fishing practice, they could contact travel agencies to arrange it. It would also be good to connect with WCS as well because they are implementing an ecotourism project there in cooperation with the Government’s Department of Fisheries. Travellers can go to the area by hiring a boat from Mandalay on a day or overnight trip. Or they can travel to Singu from Mandalay by car and then continue to the area by boat on a day trip. The other way to go there is travelling by car to Sheinmakar Village in Wetlet Township via passing through Sagaing and then by boat to the area from the village.

As the Department of Fisheries and WCS are jointly carrying out conservation of Ayeyawady Dolphins, 60 suitable fishermen have been selected and given authorized cards by the Department of Fisheries. They are from seven villages of fishermen who can work with assistance of the dolphins. As part of this project, WCS and the Fisheries Department help local fishermen breed fish, provide them with fishing nets, boats and engines. They also work with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism for hotel services during the trip.

As part of the project WCS and Department of Fisheries are conducting training courses on the cooperative fishing practice with dolphins given by well-experienced fishermen. Travellers can also experience handicraft and learn about the history of these villages. Small local teams including tour guides, cooking teams, and bull carts and drivers are being formed to render services to travellers and enjoy the benefits.

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