Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday ordered the establishment of a sanctuary on the Mekong River to protect critically endangered dolphins, three of which were killed by fishing nets and lines last month.
Known for their protruding foreheads and short beaks, the Ayeyarwady dolphins once swam much of the mighty Mekong River, but in recent decades have been confined to a 190-kilometre (118-mile) range from northeastern Kratie province to the Laotian border.
Their numbers have been in steady decline since the first census was taken in 1997, from 200 individuals that year to about 90 currently due to habitat loss and destructive fishing.
During a ceremony in Kratie, Hun Sen ordered authorities to place floating markers around the designated protected area, where all fishing would be “absolutely prohibited”.
“The Mekong River is home to endangered dolphins and fish and must be managed properly so that the dolphins do not die due to entanglement in gillnets,” he said. Gillnets are nets that are used to catch fish in circles across sections of rivers.
“The dolphin area must be fully protected,” he said, adding that the presence of the animals contributes to local tourism.
Last month, three healthy breeding dolphins died within a week of each other. The deaths have alarmed conservationists, who have called for round-the-clock patrols to protect remaining dolphins from being killed by illegal fishing.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 11 dolphins will die in 2022, bringing the total number of dolphins that have died over the past three years to 29.
In a statement, WWF called on all relevant authorities to “develop and roll out appropriate measures to urgently address deaths from the threat of gillnets and electronic fishing in dolphin sanctuaries”.
Cambodia is home to the largest number of Irrawaddy finless porpoises, and rivers and lakes in Myanmar, Indonesia, India and Thailand also have Irrawaddy finless porpoises.