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Tribal fishing practices could save Irrawaddy dolphins

MANILA, Philippines—The Tagbanua tribe of Malampaya Sound may be obscure and small, but their indigenous practices could be the thing that could pull Irrawaddy dolphins out of the  brink of extinction.

Over the years, destructive fishing practices have culled the population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the waters of nothwest Palawan, a recent study by the World Wide Fund for Nature–Philippines showed.


According to the environmental group, the population of the marine mammals in Malampaya Sound, one of the two areas in the country where they can be found, has plummeted to 42 from 77 in 2001.

Joel Palma, a WWF conservationist, said up to seven dolphins died every year, tangled up in fishing nets and traps used by the fishermen in the Sound, an ecologically rich  region that boasts of coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and lowland forests.


The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has classified Orcaella brevirostris as critically endangered – the highest risk category for any animal species. There are only about 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins left worldwide, the WWF said. It would be nearly impossible to replenish the population of the dolphins if the number drops below 40.

The WFF has called for a change in the fishing practices in the sound and urged local communities there to follow the sustainable fishing methods of the Tagbanua tribe.

According to the WWF, the tribe’s fishing practices have shown “how people can steward nature without destroying it.” Not only would this help curb the dolphin deaths, it would also preserve the ecosystem of the resource-rich Malampaya waters.

“Everything is interlinked – the survival of the Irrawaddy dolphins and the conservation of Malampaya Sound are dependent on the economy and the culture of its own stewards,” Palma said.

“Dolphins are top-tier predators and their presence indicates the soaring health of local marine ecosystems. Should the dolphins be pushed into extinction, the Malampaya Sound’s rich fishing industry might crash as well,” he added.

Dr. Raoul Cola, who studied the indigenous practices of the tribe for the WWF in his book Conserving Nature As Lifeways that was published last week, said the Tagbanua people conserve marine resources using extraction schedule and selective harvesting. The Tagbanuas catch certain fish species based on the position of the moon or the tide. They also share their catch among neighbors and relatives, avoiding wastage and overfishing.

Their methods, Cola said, do leave a heavy impact on the environment and provide  time for resource restoration. The Tagbanuas show the important role that indigenous peoples play in the protection of the threatened but highly-biodiverse areas they call home.


Mavic Matillano, who was in charge of the Irrawaddy study, said the tribe’s sustainable practices were  rooted in their belief that nature has to be respected. In the tribe’s mythical belief system, for instance, the dolphins are messengers of the deity and should not be caught.

“For them, the dolphins are bearers of good tidings and are also the omen of something bad that will happen like typhoons or calamities, depending on the behavior of the animal,” she said.

“That, in a way, made the lumads also believe that when you hurt a dolphin, something bad may happen to you,” she added.

But as time passed and migrants settled around the sound, the Tagbanua’s indigenous practices were replaced by modern fishing methods that rapidly depleted resources.

WWF said migrant fishermen there used long line traps and fishing nets which they leave overnight to catch crabs and fishes. Because these fishing tools are under water and are difficult to detect via echolocation, the dolphins found themselves trapped in the lines and unable to surface for air. “The dolphins could not breathe so they drowned,” Palma said.

Dolphins are not the only species in decline. “Although the Sound was long recognized as a fish basket of the country, its production noticeably decreased. It cannot keep up with the market-driven harvesting of the settlers and commercial fishers,” Cola said in his study, published last week.

WWF officials said the most important thing to do right now was to change the fishing practices of the coastal communities there. WWF and Cola pointed to the Tagbanua’s fishing practices as a model of sustainable practice.

The WWF said they have urged the communities to switch to individual traps and safer fishing gear.

Palma said the switch has led to a dramatic decrease in mortality rates, with 1 or 2 dolphin casualties in a year.

Instead of a market-driven harvesting, Cola urged fishermen in Malampaya Sound to share and schedule their marine croppings. He also advocated the use of simple technologies that do not disrupt the ecosystem and the establishment of no-touch zones.

“Based on the principle of the interconnection, not only of ecosystems but also of the natural, social, and spiritual worlds, these strategies demonstrate that the world view of the users molds their environment and defines the prospect of its sustainability,” Cola said.

Meanwhile, the WWF said hewing closely to the indigenous practices of the Tagbanua tribe is just one step in preserving the dolphin population in Malampaya Sound.

WWF communications manager Gregg Yan said no private or public body is investing in the conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Philippines.

“We urgently need a localized species conservation strategy for these beleaguered dolphins. To effectively implement this plan, WWF needs to coordinate closely with the DENR, BFAR, LGUs and other stakeholders. But the first step is to find a funder,” he said.

“Immediate action is necessary to secure the future of this population. Otherwise, the population will become so small that conservation efforts are effectively futile,” he added.

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TAGS: Conservation, Fisheries, Fishing, Irrawady Dolphins, Marine life, Preservation, wildlife
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