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.

She cleared her throat, and slowly asked: “Ah…um. How do you… feel… about dolphins?”

There was a pause. I fully expected him to cast an incredulous glare upon us, to decide that we — with our sentimental, dolphin-hugger questions — were no longer worth any of his time, to laughingly get up and walk away.

Instead, he softened, and smilingly gushed, “Oh, I love seeing them play in the sea! Whenever I see them playing, the fatigue I feel from fishing disappears. They are very beautiful animals…I am happy that we have them here!”

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.

There is no universal definition for small-scale fisheries, but they are generally characterized by smaller boat size and lower-technology gear than industrial boats. Small-scale fisheries are fascinatingly diverse, but one common characteristic is that they represent a critically important interface between marine ecosystems and the well-being of human communities. These communities rely on fishing for income and food, but also often have other ties to fishing: it’s a way of life, a part of their tradition and culture, something that fulfills them in a way that other jobs could not.

Malampaya Sound is known as a productive fishing area, giving rise to its nickname “the Fish Bowl of the Philippines.” However, overfishing has led to declines in catches, and several of the older fishers we interviewed ruefully joked that it was now an “Empty Bowl.” It is a semi-enclosed inlet into which a few rivers deposit murky waters. The muddy shorelines are fringed with coconut palms, mangroves, rice fields, and the nipa huts and occasional concrete structures of the fishing villages. These villages are relatively remote from the nearest urban center, with limited infrastructure — many homes do not have running water or electricity, most of the villages do not have schools above the elementary level, and health care in the more remote villages is limited to a scantily stocked village pharmacy and bi-monthly visits by a midwife. The main livelihoods are fishing and farming. These are not wealthy communities.

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

We had reason to feel trepidation about asking a sentimental, dolphin-centric question of fishers here. The only way to reduce bycatch is to change how people fish. In communities where people depend on fishing, this poses a highly challenging situation where dolphin conservation might threaten human well-being. Numerous examples and common sense indicate that, if local communities are harmed by conservation, they will be less likely to support it. In developing countries, where resources for conservation enforcement are limited, community support is vital for conservation measures to be implemented and enforced. Beyond the practical reasons for considering the community, there are also ethical reasons: conservation risks violating human rights if it takes over and changes people’s livelihoods without their consent, even if the end goal is to save a species.

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. EMWhitty

Our best estimate for the population of the dolphins is around 35 individuals, though the maximum estimate is in the 50s. At this population size, even one dolphin killed by human activities each year is unsustainable. We documented bycatch rates of at least three to eight dolphins per year for the previous three years, and this was almost certainly a conservative estimate. Most of the bycatch occurs in crab gillnets and crab pots, which are small bamboo basket-like structures that are set out on the bottom of the Sound, connected to each other by ropes in which the dolphins become entangled. There is extensive overlap between these gears and dolphin habitat, meaning that virtually all of the areas where these gears are used would need to be closed to that type of fishing — with serious implications for the fishers using these gears. Gillnets are among the cheapest, most easy to deploy gears, and the crab pots are also cheap and provide extra income for the local indigenous peoples, who construct and sell them. These will not be easy gears to restrict, let alone ban.

Fishers preparing to deploy their crab pots. T.S.Whitty
A pile of crab pots on the beach. T.S.Whitty

In fact, most fishing activity in Malampaya Sound is not controlled. Malampaya Sound was designated as a Protected Land and Seascape in 2000, but inadequate funding and issues with corruption have resulted in almost no “protection.” The rangers who work for the Malampaya Sound Protected Area Office are dedicated. But, they often do not have fuel for their patrol boat, and when they apprehend illegal fishers, those fishers are often released due to personal connections with local politicians. There are no community groups focused on the environment, even though organizations have tried to establish them. For whatever reason, these efforts have all imploded, leaving Malampaya Sound without any strong top-down or bottom-up mechanisms for managing its fisheries. This means that regulations meant to reduce dolphin bycatch will likely not be effectively enforced.

One way to get these gears out of the water would be to develop alternative livelihoods for fishers. This, however, is challenging in a remote location with limited infrastructure for tourism and other industries, and limited access to advanced education. A concerted effort is needed to develop capacity for alternative livelihoods and establish community groups for fisheries management and conservation if dolphin conservation will have any meaningful chance of succeeding. WWF-Philippines has worked admirably for years here, but they face funding issues and overextended personnel. Resolving the bycatch situation in Malampaya Sound will require substantial funds and person-power.

“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

Bycatch in small-scale fisheries is one of the most intractable conservation problems that I’ve come across. There’s usually no obvious “bad guy,” nor an evil and greedy corporation plundering the environment; we are talking about hard-working, often poor communities fishing to survive. The inextricable linkages between marine megafauna conservation and human well-being pose serious hurdles to conserving those animals. However, I like to believe that, with the right combination of motivation and creativity, much progress can be made in using these linkages to work with communities to develop innovative solutions not just for cute sea critters, but also for improving the lives of the communities with which they overlap. We need to make it possible for fishing communities to survive while enabling them to support the conservation of animals that they actually, in many cases, do care about.


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.


Also posted at Medium


This was originally written as a solicited piece for someone’s Master’s project — an issue of an ocean-focused ezine (SEVENSEAS Media). They said they really liked the piece, but then disappeared without a peep. Or maybe they didn’t like it… Anyway, I’d put the work into it, so I’d like to share it.