Electrofishing is killing off many fish, and the practice is starting to disrupt the food source for dolphins.
Electrofishing refers to the technique of sending electrical currents into water. The electricity comes from metal rods or conductive nets which are attached to car batteries. The fish are stunned in groups, making them easy to collect all at once by fishermen.
The practice of electrofishing is illegal, but it’s not stopping fishermen from using the harmful technique. It’s having a huge impact on dolphin populations since it leaves dolphins without enough fish to consume. Additionally, dolphins have been known to be killed from electrofishing.
The issue is becoming a major problem in Burma and its Irrawaddy River, as the Burmese population of dolphins is said to be endangered. Currently, fewer than 60 dolphins remain in the area.
Many say that the cooperative relationship between humans and dolphins could soon go down the drain. Humans in Burma have been using the dolphins to help catch fish for generations. The partnership is even mentioned in a history journal from 1871. The dolphins are a big part of local lore.
Indeed, studies have shown that fishermen are able to retrieve more fish with help from dolphins. One study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) from 2007 said that fishermen could catch a haul of 60 pounds with dolphin assistance, but only 11 pounds without their help.
However, fish populations began to rapidly decline once electrofishing became widespread. This started happening about ten years ago. During this time, electrofishing techniques have evolved from tiny electric rods into more advanced copper-lined nets that can stun and collect a large number of fish.
The problem goes beyond electrofishing, as logging, dredging, agricultural runoff, and gold mining are also harming fish populations in Burma.
While electrofishing is illegal, the practice is difficult to enforce.
Starting in 2005, the WCS and Burma’s Department of Fisheries declared a 40 mile protection zone in order to maintain the well-being of the dolphins. Catching, killing, and trading dolphins were banned. Additionally, gillnets and dragnets were also banned, as they have been found to be harmful to dolphins.
The Burmese government declared a three-year prison sentence for electrofishers. The waterways are patrolled by the Department of Fisheries, WCS officials, and local police. However, electrofishers typically react violently to enforcement, and they can simply outrun any boats that are patrolling in the area.
The problem is also affecting small-scale fishermen, as the catch rate for this group has fallen by 50% over the last five years.
For now, the WCS is working on creating eco-tours in the Irrawaddy River, with the hope that wealthy tourists visiting the area can establish incentives to protect dolphins and their habitats. So far, at least six tours have taken place.
Local small-time fishermen are some of the most discouraged by the situation. They miss the big catches that they used to bring in and the dolphins that were there to greet them.