A tangled net: Bycatch, dolphin conservation, and human well-being

Zion shot me a look of doubt, which I deftly avoided by gazing off into space. I snuck a glance at the man sitting in front of us — a grizzled old salt, a man of the sea, a sinewy and no-nonsense fisherman. He was one of the first participants in my research project on Irrawaddy dolphins in Malampaya Sound, in the Philippines, which included interviews of local fishers. Neither Zion nor I felt particularly confident about the next question on our list, but I had stubbornly insisted on including it just to see what would happen.

Dolphins in the Fish Bowl

This was the first of hundreds of responses that we collected to that, and many other, questions. We were studying the bycatch, or accidental capture, of the local Irrawaddy dolphins in small-scale fisheries. Previous research by Louella Dolar, Brian Smith, and Marivic Matillano — some of the leaders of dolphin conservation in Southeast Asia — had demonstrated that bycatch is the main threat facing this critically endangered subpopulation (geographically distinct group) of Irrawaddy dolphins. Bycatch is a serious threat to marine megafauna (big marine animals, including marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles) around the world. It’s not just bycatch in big industrial fishing boats; small-scale fisheries, as in Malampaya Sound, are a major part of this problem.

Irrawaddy dolphins frolicking amidst fishing activity in Malampaya Sound. T.S.Whitty
The Malampaya Sound Protected Area Office rangers retrieving a dolphin killed by bycatch. Photo Credit: Malampaya Sound Protected Area Office.
A fisher paddles past New Guinlo, one of the most developed fishing village in Malampaya Sound. T.S.Whitty.
Fishers hauling up their nets. T.S.Whitty

Following Dolphins & Talking to Fishers

For these reasons, we need to study not only the animals, but also the humans. This is where social-ecological research comes in — a combination of natural and social sciences to understand how and why bycatch is happening, what is driving the human activities that lead to that problem, and the opportunities and obstacles for mediating the problem. For about six months, my trusty research team and I traversed Malampaya Sound’s waters and traipsed through its villages, collecting data on dolphins and people to better understand not only the bycatch itself, but the complex human element of these fisheries. Our methods were a combination of boat-based surveys of dolphins and fishing activities and interviews of fishers and other members of the community.

. Our team loading up our (usually) trusty research vessel, the Malampaya Express. T.S.Whitty
Conducting an exploratory group interview. T.S.Whitty
Fishers preparing to deploy their crab pots. T.S.Whitty
A pile of crab pots on the beach. T.S.Whitty

“I am proud to have them here”

This all seems pretty grim. But a glimmer of hope is the largely positive responses we received to our question, “How do you feel about dolphins?” This question is actually quite important, because people will more likely support conservation of something that they care about. Overwhelmingly, fishers told us that they liked having the dolphins around; fishers could follow them to see where fish and shrimp were, but also thought of them as beautiful living beings with intelligence and an inherent right to exist. Even fishers who complained about the dolphins damaging their nets and stealing their catch would smile when asked about their feelings toward these adorable thieves. Several fishers responded that they were proud to have the dolphins in Malampaya Sound, and that they wanted them to exist for future generations.

We need to find glimmers of hope for Irrawaddy dolphin conservation, and use them to motivate concerted and creative conservation efforts. T.S.Whitty
Children in awe of meeting Waddy, the Irrawaddy dolphin, during one of our outreach events. T.S.Whitty
How can the future generations of Malampaya Sound conserve their dolphin neighbors while promoting their own well-being? T.S.Whitty


Many heartfelt thanks go to the Malampaya Sound research team: Ely Buitizon, Zion Dalumpines-Segundo Sunit, Ricky Tandoc, Cristela Oares de Sena, Archie Espinosa, Romeo Borrega, and Eira M. Whitty. Grateful acknowledgements are due to the Protected Area Management Board, Palawan Council on Sustainable Development, the municipal government of Taytay, the provincial government of Palawan, and the study village for permission to conduct research in Malampaya Sound; to Alexander Mancio and the Protected Area Office, Marivic Matillano and WWF-Philippines, Lota Creencia and Gerlyn Supe at Western Philippines University, Hilconida Calumpong at the Silliman University Institute for Environmental and Marine Sciences, the Philippine-American Educational Foundation, and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center for logistical support and expertise; and to Louella Dolar, Lisa Ballance, and Paul Dayton for invaluable guidance. Institutional Review Board approval was obtained from the UC San Diego Human Research Protections Program for all interviews. Funding for this research came from the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, National Geographic-Waitt Grants, the Small-scale and Artisanal Fisheries Network, and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program for the Philippines.

Exploring the world of coastal conservation & communities, meaningful travel, and life along the way | tswhitty.com | PhD in marine conservation

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