kratie town – A 35-year-old fresh-water Irrawaddy dolphin died last week, raising concerns once again that illegal fishing and pollution could slowly be killing one of Cambodia’s main eco-tourism attractions, a Kratie fisheries department official said.
A complicated birth killed the dolphin and her offspring, but misplaced conservation funds are doing more to harm the Irrawaddy, said Sam Kim Lorn, provincial fisheries department chief.
Sam Kim Lorn accused Kratie’s provincial governor and the provincial tourism department of pocketing money earned from tourism, rather than reinvesting it in the river’s conservation.
“If we had the money, we would deploy the authorities to patrol the site to confiscate [illegal] fishing nets,” he said last week.
During the dry season, foreigners seeking an up-close look at the dolphins can pay $2 to independent fishermen for a ride in their rickety boats. Rainy season trips cost $3 because guides need to travel longer distances to find shallow waters.
“All the money goes to the governor and the tourism department. If we can get just 10 percent or 20 percent of the money, we can use it to protect the dolphins,” Sam Kim Lorn said.
Thirty years ago, thousands of dolphins inhabited the Mekong River between Kratie province and the Laos border, but have since died, primarily due to entanglement in illegal fishing nets.
Now, 65 Irrawaddy dolphins swim in the Mekong River and are facing extinction due to illegal fishing and diseases caused by pollution, Sam Kim Lorn said.
Ten dolphin carcasses were found in 2003, double the number discovered in 2002, according to the Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project’s July report. Three carcasses were found in 2001. About 41 percent of the deaths were attributed to illegal net entanglement.
Governor Loy Sophat on Sunday said he has not received money from the dolphin attraction.
“We allow the fishermen to sell their services, so they are responsible,” he said, adding that the provincial government does not have the manpower to do the job.
Eam On Den, provincial tourism department chief, said Sunday that he informally requests 30 percent of the ticket sales to pay for tourist police, the upkeep of roads and the river’s port. He said fishermen are not forced to pay the informal tax.
But Than Somatbunwath, coordinator of Oxfam’s Community Aid Abroad project, said most fishing community members are unhappy with the tourism department for the tax.
The dolphins are Kratie’s main tourist attraction, drawing at least 600 foreign tourists between October and April—the high tourist season, Eam On Den said. Since 1999, the number of tourists has doubled annually, he said.
Irrawaddy dolphins are found in only three areas worldwide: the Mekong River, Indonesia’s Mahakam River, and Burma’s Irrawaddy River.
Despite increased tourism, Eam On Den said the tourism department does not have enough funds to spread the wealth.
“We cannot share our money with the fisheries department, because we already have to beg for the money from the fishing community,” he said.
With no resources to arrest illegal fishermen, the fisheries department instead is educating the community about the dolphins’ importance as a means of conservation.
The community network tipped off the fisheries department in 2002, leading to the arrest of a fisherman who killed one dolphin. The man was convicted in provincial court but remains at large, facing fines and a jail sentence of up to three years, Sam Kim Lorn said.
Fishermen caught using nets designed to catch more fish than is permitted by law will have their nets confiscated and be fined $75 for first-time offenses, according to a government subdecree. Repeat offenders may be arrested and face jail time.