Beautiful People Environment

Fishing with Irrawaddy dolphins

Fishermen think these smiley-faced, bumpy-headed creatures are beautiful

Fishermen think these smiley-faced, bumpy-headed creatures are beautiful

The dolphins surged towards the long stretch of gillnet, the backs of their polished slate-grey bodies breaking the surface. Cornered fish leapt out of the brackish water, their silver bodies shimmering in the sunlight. But they had no escape as the mammals bore down on them. These were the same fish that fishermen coveted, and the Irrawaddy dolphins seemed to be stealing their catch. Instead of cursing them, the watching fishermen broke into wide grins. The experiences of generations of their forebears had taught them the secret of a bountiful catch.

Fishermen in Chilika Lake stretch walls of nets along stakes driven into the bottom and set fish traps at the ends. As the tide rushes into the lagoon, fish stream in. When they run into the net barrier, they swim along its length into the traps. At low tide, the fishermen haul in the catch. They aren't the only ones to use the fixed gillnets. Pods of the beluga-like Irrawaddy dolphins herd fish by spitting water at them. Normally, they trap their prey against the shore, but now they've learned to pin them against the man-made barrier.

A fisherman wanting to maximise his returns could grumble the dolphins were competing with him and eating his catch. Seals and otters in other parts of the world bear the brunt of fishermen's anger. What's special about Chilika? Why do its residents grin when the creatures with melon-shaped heads bound away with their fish?

An aquatic alliance

The men say the aquatic mammals are their allies, driving more fish into the traps. When they set up the nets, they say a prayer to the earth goddess Harchandi and tap the sides of their boats to summon her emissaries, the dolphins. That's like announcing to the underwater beings where to catch fish.

Does age-old superstition blind these people to their losses?

Coralie D'Lima, a dolphin biologist, compared fish catch with and without the aquatic mammals. The local folks didn't conduct scientific experiments to measure whether dolphins helped them. But they were right in a way.

Contrary to their beliefs, the dolphins don't help them catch more fish by volume. Nor do the fishermen suffer losses though the animals spend a lot of time at the stake nets. The people catch the same volume of fish, and the dolphins' presence doesn't make a difference. However, the fishermen pull in more mullet, the most sought-after fish in this wetland, with the aid of the two-metre-long mammals than without them, and thereby earn more money.

Similarly, over in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy, the river after which the creatures are named, fishermen used to cast their nets and whistle to their favourite dolphins. The mammals not only responded but knew what was expected of them. In return for stuffing fish into the waiting nets, they were rewarded with handfuls of fish. All is not okay with this partnership. Some Irrawaddy fishermen have begun using large car batteries to electrocute fish. Although larger than fish, the dolphins aren't immune to the electric charge and float lifeless with their prey. The few that survive avoid humans like a pestilence.

The story in Cambodia's Mekong is no different. Although people there think of dolphins as benevolent creatures and do not deliberately harm them, they drop grenades in the waters to catch fish, hurting the mammals as well.

In Chilika, however, artisanal fishing still remains in vogue. About three decades ago, they used a cotton filament drag net to fish and, like the Myanmarese fishermen, whistled for dolphins when they were ready. They don't practice that style of fishing nor do they whistle for their aquatic aids anymore.

Coralie says the Irrawaddy dolphins are by nature shy creatures, but over the generations, they've learned to trust the fishermen. These wild creatures of the lagoon continue fishing within a couple of metres of the men hauling in their catch.

From watching these animals up close, the people recognise individual dolphins. Their belief that the dolphins help them catch more fish is unshakable. “If dolphins die, fishermen will suffer, as fishing is impossible without them,’’ they say. One man recounted how a dolphin dragged him ashore and saved his life when he was drowning. Coralie says although she can't vouch for the story, others narrate similar tales. The intelligent animals probably understand a human struggling in the water needs rescuing. “They definitely know more than we realise,” she says.

Beyond the net

Help isn't a one-way street. A group of men, realising a dolphin was in distress after it had swallowed something, helped it puke. Another dolphin couldn't swim normally because of a fishing line wrapped around its tail. Drifting pieces of fishing gear are a mortal danger to these aquatic animals. A fisherman cut it loose and saved its life.

Going to each other's aid is one basis of the relationship. Religion adds another. Aesthetics is a third. Some fishermen think the smiley-faced, bumpy-headed creatures are beautiful.

This generations-old rapport between human and animal is changing as dolphin-watching tour boats pursue them. The aquatic mammals seem to know the difference between fishermen and tourists, and want nothing to do with gawkers, leaving the spot in a hurry.

Within days of arriving in Chilika, Coralie had her own dolphin story. She was on a boat conducting a survey, minding her own business, when a half-grown dolphin spyhopped, sticking its head straight out of the water. It might have wanted to have a good look at the stranger, but it spat a jet of water at her. Since it was only a metre away from the boat, the stream could have splashed on Coralie but for the boat's height. She thinks the youngster was inviting her to play. Although charmed by its behaviour, at that moment, however, she was shocked that a wild animal wanted contact with a human.

On other occasions, when she narrated her data loudly, above the noise of the boat's engine, into her dictaphone, dolphins surfaced to see what she was doing.

“It's a beautiful relationship,” says Coralie. “And it's easy to take it for granted.” For people of Chilika, this is how it has always been.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover

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Printable version | May 17, 2022 8:05:55 am |