Friday, April 21, 2006

Dolphin bycatch in one village near Kuching

Perhaps the single largest threat to the Irrawaddy dolphins in Sarawak is by-catch, when fishermen accidentally catch dolphins in their nets. In Sarawak, fishermen will release a dolphin if it is found alive in their fishing nets. They will cut the nets to free the dolphin regardless of the cost they incur in damaged nets. I’ve spoken to many fishermen, young and old, that have done this. They say that the dolphins often appear as though they are crying and for years their tradition has been to release the dolphins so that is what they do.

But on many occasions dolphins are found dead in the nets. If this is the case the fishermen will take the dolphin back to their village and eat the meat, usually distributing it to family and friends in the village. On occasions the meat is sold. Their approach is ‘well its dead already so why waste it’. Some people may have a problem with this but it’s a fact of life in the coastal villages around Sarawak. If dolphins are found alive in the nets they are released, if they are already dead then nothing is wasted.

There is no monitoring of dolphin by-catch in Sarawak. So when dolphins are caught there is no system in place for the fishermen to report the death. As such the relevant wildlife agency does not record the number of fatalities and does not examine the dolphin carcasses.

So how bad is the problem of dolphin by-catch in Sarawak? No one really knows for sure. Interviews with residents of fishing villages in the Kuching division suggest that 2-3 dolphins are caught every year in each of the villages surveyed (Jaaman et al, 2000). Information I collected in 2002 and 2003 is also in line with this estimate.

In 2002 and 2003 I kept track of the number of cases of incidental dolphin catch by the fishing fleet of one village near Kuching. Fishing boats from this village fish in both offshore and near shore waters. Four dolphins were accidentally caught in fishing nets in 2002 and three dolphins in 2003. Of these seven bycatches, four were confirmed to be Irrawaddy dolphins.

In March 2002, two dolphins were caught in offshore waters, species not known but the dolphins were described as having long beaks. The fishermen found the dead dolphins in the morning after a heavy storm the night before. In the last week of April 2002, one dolphin was caught near Satang Island. The fishermen believed this was an Indo-Pacific Hump-back (or “white dolphin” as local fishermen call this species). The dolphin was dead in the nets when the fishermen found it.
On the morning of 8th May 2002 a juvenile Irrawaddy was accidentally caught in the middle of the Bako-Buntal bay. The dolphin was found dead when the fisherman hauled in his nets. The dolphin was brought back to the village and the meat consumed. I arrived in the village later on that day to see if anything remained. The dolphin had already been cut up and all that remained was the head and tail.

On 4th May 2003 three Irrawaddy dolphins (one fully grown adult and two smaller dolphins) were caught in nets between Tanjung Sipang and Pulau Lakei, near Bako National Park. The dolphins were dead when found and the meat was later sold in the village.

Pictured below is the remains of the juvenile Irrawaddy that was caught in 2002. Not a pretty sight. So what is the impact of by-catch on Sarawak’s population of Irrawaddy dolphins? No one knows. But one thing I do know is that some sort of monitoring system needs to be set up to ascertain how bad the problem is.


Jaaman, S.A., Ali, S.A., Anyi, Y.U.L., Miji, C. J., Bali, J., Regip, J.M., Bilang, R. and Wahed, R., 2000. Research and conservation of marine mammals in Sarawak: current knowledge. Hornbill 4: 17-28. Forest Department Sarawak, Kuching.


FH2O said...

I agree. Without a properly set up monitoring system in place, we'll probably never know how bad the problem is and how to address it.

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