By Max Avary
Champasak, May 2, 2018
Irrawaddy dolphins, a freshwater mammal species now making a comeback in Cambodia, are under increasing threat of extinction in neighboring Laos, where their numbers have dwindled to four under pressure from illegal fishing and construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong River, sources say.
Distinguished by their large foreheads and short beaks, as many as 18 of the rare dolphins could once be found on the Lao side of an 118-mile stretch of the river, an official of the Fish Conservation Department of the Khong district of Laos’s Champasak province told RFA’s Lao Service.
“Now, only four are left,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Recently there were five, including a little one that died just last month because of the severe impact [on its environment].”
In Laos, fishermen use nets, dynamite, and electricity to trap or kill the dolphins, whose habitat lies just 500 meters downstream from Laos’s controversial Don Sahong dam, the Lao fisheries official said, noting that his department has been doing its best to save them.
“We have a team constantly patrolling the area, and authorities have also issued a set of strict rules banning the use of destructive methods to catch fish,” he said, adding that protections including the arrests of fishermen and destruction of nets are stronger in neighboring Cambodia, where the number of dolphins is growing.
“There, they have about 90 Irrawaddy dolphins left,” he said.
Numbers up in Cambodia
The number of Irrawaddy dolphins present on the Cambodian side of the river now stands at 92, a recent report by Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration and the World Wide Fund for Nature says, according to an April 23 report by the Associated Press.
And this represents an increase of 15 percent from an estimate of 50 made in 2015, the AP said.
“Despite the increase during the latest count, the number of dolphins in the Mekong is still less than half of the 200 counted during the first official census in 1997,” the AP said.
Fish stocks have meanwhile been in decline for the last five years in the stretch of river downstream from the Don Sahong dam, Lao sources say.
“In the past, there were a lot of fish in the Mekong River, but nowadays we catch only 30 percent of what we could five years ago,” a fisherman in the Khong district’s Hang Sadam village told RFA’s Lao Service in a recent interview.
“Before, we would make between $600 and $700 a day from fishing. Today, we can’t even catch enough fish for our own consumption,” he said.
Nearly 400 households in three villages located below Don Sahong have suffered a dramatic drop in their catch since work began on the dam in late 2015, sources say.