Photo Credit: Rubaiyat Mansur

Meet the fishers helping save threatened dolphins


Preventing bycatch of threatened marine megafauna is a challenging task, writes Brian D. Smith from the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh. Fishers are often unable to detect Irrawaddy dolphins entangled in their nets. But according to Brian there are solutions.

This blog piece originally appeared on the IUCN Blog in February this year. It is one of a series of SOS Grantee blogs to be featured relating news from conservation projects worldwide.

Early one morning WCS researcher Rubaiyat Mansur received a phone call. It was from Sonjoy Kumar Dash, one of the gillnet fishing captains participating in our dolphin – fisher safety network. Sonjoy’s voice trembled as he told us the bad news. “I am so sorry. We tried our best but an Irrawaddy dolphin became entangled in our net. When we pulled it up the dolphin was already dead. My crew told me not to tell you but it is my duty. I will send you the photos over my mobile phone.”

Sonjoy has been one of our star fishers since we started the SOS project Saving threatened coastal cetaceans in collaboration with gill net fishers in coastal waters of Bangladesh in July 2013. This project works with fishers to monitor their nets for dolphin and porpoise entanglements, rescue live dolphins and porpoises when they become entangled, and collect biological information and samples from cetaceans that are found already dead. In exchange we provide them with tools for increasing their safety at sea with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and training on how to use it to navigate safely inside the Sundarbans mangrove forest during increasingly frequent extreme storms.

Once they knew we also wanted to learn more about accidental shark catches, Sonjoy and other captains inspired by his efforts started providing us with vital information on bycatches involving shark species threatened with extinction by gillnet entanglement. They now also collect data on the locations where they deploy and retrieve their gill nets. This will allow us to work with the gillnet fishing community and the Government of Bangladesh to develop spatial planning approaches, and reduce bycatch by prohibiting entangling gear where dolphins and porpoises occur in the greatest densities, while concentrating fisheries in areas where there is reduced risk due to fewer cetaceans occurring in them.

Sonjoy and his fellow captains are enthusiastic fans of our program in part because they receive the powerful incentive of increasing their safety at sea with the GPS. This comes at a time when their lives are becoming increasingly perilous due to extreme storms whose frequency and magnitude are increasing due to climate change. These storms take the lives of hundreds to thousands of fishers each year. The fishing boat captains tell us they also save fuel by navigating more accurately with a GPS.

However, their support goes far beyond the safety and cost-saving benefits they enjoy as part of the SOS-funded dolphin – fisher safety network. The dolphins’ visits are a welcome break from the boredom and drudgery of life at sea, and the fishers express great sadness when dolphins and porpoises die in their nets.

Saving threatened dolphins and porpoises in Bangladesh is a challenging task and, even though we have learnt a great deal about the nature and magnitude of cetacean bycatch in gillnets, so far we have not been able to rescue a single animal. Sonjoy promises us that he will be more vigilant looking for entangled dolphins while monitoring his net, but he fears more dolphins will die without early warning of their entanglement.

A great deal of their fishing activity occurs at night, so the fishers cannot see what is happening in their net. But even during the day they cannot see as far as they need to in order to detect an underwater struggle along their 2-3 km long nets. Working with the fishers, we will test early warning alarms as simple as a bell on a buoy to alert fishers of dolphin entanglements, and flags on buoy poles to give them visual cues of a dolphin struggling beneath the surface.

We also hope to equip the fishermen with a pair of waterproof binoculars which will extend their visual capacity to detect entanglements and enrich the information we receive on dolphin and porpoise sightings.

Working together with gillnet fishing captains in Bangladesh, we are optimistic about finding solutions to solve the bycatch problem of cetaceans, sharks and other marine megafauna threatened with extinction from gill net entanglement. With help from SOS, WCS is building strong constituencies in support of cetacean conservation in a global hotspot where threatened species are found in generally much greater numbers than in other areas of their distribution in the tropical Indo-Pacific. For more information on this SOS-funded project protecting coastal cetaceans, see here.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting frontline conservation work from grantees of SOS – Save Our Species, a global initiative created by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank and IUCN, since joined by numerous other donors. Managed by IUCN, SOS aggregates and redistributes much-needed funding to high-impact species projects implemented by conservation organisations worldwide.

This project is just one of many community oriented marine conservation projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative. With your continued support we can continue to support frontline conservation tackling issues like death by gill net. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.

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