11 July 2024

With concerns mounting over the threats to the 14 to 20 Irrawaddy dolphins left in Songkhla Lake, dolphin experts from international organizations recently met with local agencies at the World Bank office in Bangkok to jointly step up conservation efforts to counter the potential impacts in the future.

It was the largest ever meeting of dolphin experts here with participants including the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and those from India, Cambodia and Laos while the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the Department of Fisheries, and the Department of Rural Roads joined a discussion on the action plan to safeguard the river dolphins.

Assistant Professor Thon Thamrong-Nawasawat, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Fisheries, Kasetsart University who is also chairman of marine endangered species working group under the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources,revealed that the meeting had agreed to the proposed conservation guidelines, which will greatly strengthen efforts to safeguard the river dolphins.

According to the action plan, Thailand will carry out research through various methods including boat-based surveys, aerial surveys, acoustic surveys and other means (DNA, genetic diversity, water quality, and ecosystem). There will be a joint declaration on the protected area, patrols, sustainable fishing and awareness campaigns to improve the current status of the creatures and reduce the current impacts.

Supervision of potential impacts in the future is essential. The EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) requirements of a bridge construction project across Songkhla Lake will be provided before, during and after construction. These include installation of sediment curtains, a dolphin watch patrol boat, warning alert, and underwater acoustic recorders.

In addition, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources will encourage public awareness and create participation campaigns including a mass media tour, hiring celebrities/famous persons on social media, making a documentary,(currently under preparation by the ThaiWhales group), establishing a dolphin conservation center as well as crowdfunding.

In terms of immediate implementation, there is coordination between the EIA team and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources to undertake a joint research effort, providing the central database for the experts to access, funding for patrol operation which is urgently needed, funding for research by other agencies, sustainable fishing studies, and research into food resources, water quality, ecosystems and other threats. Thailand will find other means of support from public events such as charity funding and collection of ghost fishing gear.

The international experts asked Thailand to incorporate habitat restoration into the conservation guide. Following the conservation guidelines, the Faculty of Fisheries, Kasetsart University targets to have no more than one stranded per year, which will stabilize the number of dolphins for 15 years and take away their risk of extinction in 30 years.

Earlier, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources stated that the number of dolphins has been declining over the past 30 years, with entanglement in gillnets posing the most serious threat to the creatures.

The bridge construction project across Songkhla Lake has raised concerns about the impact on environmental resources, including the dolphins. On October 18, 2022, the Cabinet approved a bridge construction project to link Krasae Sin district in Songkhla province with Khao Chaison district in Phatthalung province.

Irrawaddy dolphins are listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There are currently only five countries in the world where these freshwater dolphins can be found, namely India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Asst. Prof. Thon added that funding support is essential for the conservation plan. Besides the budget allocation, the government should seek a grant from World Bank to protect rare aquatic animals including river dolphins. It is wonderful that Southern Thailand has transoceanic routes linking the Pacific Ocean through the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Thailand. In addition, there is Songkhla Lake which is a unique lagoon with freshwater, brackish water and seawater. Each area is the habitat of one rare aquatic animal, namely the dugong in Trang and Krabi, Irrawaddy dolphins in Songkhla and Phatthalung, and the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Surat Thani.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Patcharee Luenguthai