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Agricultural Minister Asks Public, Fisherman to Join in Saving the River Dolphin

PHNOM PENH: The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Dith Tina, said that large fishing nets remain a challenge for river dolphins in the conservation area and asked that people work together to save the critically endangered species. He noted that dolphins are especially vulnerable to getting caught in nets because unlike fish, they are mammals that breathe air to survive.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Mekong Dolphin Photo Exhibition on the evening of October 18 at the Institut Français in Phnom Penh, Minister Dith Tina said that the conservation of dolphins is not a job for one organization, but requires the efforts of many. He said that dolphins are different from fish in that they feed on milk and use lungs to breathe, making conservation work difficult.

"The dolphin lives in the water, but it feeds its baby with milk, and it breathes. It is in the water, but it has lungs, it does not have gills like fish," he said. "Fish do not need to go up to get air, but the dolphin, if it cannot breath, it dies."

He said that this vulnerability is a challenge when dolphins get trapped in large nets and that they need a special place to live. Cambodia has designated a 180km stretch of the Mekong River between Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces as a protected area for the dolphins.

Cambodia’s World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Country Director Seng Teak said that the area where the dolphins live is the cleanest and most suitable place for them to live and provides the best ecosystem for them.

"I think the first step is to inspire people to understand the importance of rare animals in the world," he said. "It is important for people, especially the fishermen who use illegal [fishing] tools, to understand their importance and participate in the management of our living heritage."

He said that people's understanding is important, and must be supported by strict law enforcement.

Large nets and electro-shock devices pose the largest risk to the river dolphins, killing 33 individuals from 2020 to 2023, with most of them being caught in nets. According to data from 2020, scientists estimate that only 89 adult Mekong dolphins are living along Cambodia's Mekong River. Last year, the last Irrawaddy dolphin in Laos was found dead after being caught in fishing gear.

Singer Meas Soksophea expressed support for the conservation of dolphins in Cambodia, calling on people to participate in the promotion and conservation of the critically endangered species.

"We are also part of nature, she said. “We must complement each other and remember that preservation allows them to have babies. We want our territory. We have children and grandchildren. They also want to have [offspring]. I want all of you to do good deeds together. Please do not do anything to hurt other life, because everyone also has a family like us."

In 2022, an unprecedented 11 dolphins were found dead in Cambodia’s river, over 10% of the population. This year, four have been found dead, three of which were caught in fishing nets. The Minister counts the declining number of deaths as a success for conservation.

He asked the people to work together to take care of the dolphin’s habitat and to use legal fishing methods.

"There is a lot of understanding," he said. “Through our efforts with partner organizations-we work hard with other institutions. We do a lot, as you can see in the results this year. We hope that next year, the results will be good and our dolphins will continue to survive for our descendants."

The Mekong River Dolphin, is one of only six species of freshwater dolphins on the planet. The dolphin is on the Red List of Endangered Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Currently, Mekong River dolphins are present in South and Southeast Asia in three river systems: the Mekong River in Cambodia, the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and the Mahakam River in Indonesia.

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