• River Wetlands

Dolphin And Fishery Conservation: The Smiling Face of Mekong

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Video to be updated.

A slight drizzle dampens the mood. Our boat guide pushes off from the dock, telling us, “You will be lucky if we spot any dolphins today. The dolphins are free to move about in the wet season.” Despite having the odds stacked against us, we headed out anyway. As the loud throttling of the engine propelled us slowly against the rapid Mekong currents, our hopes slowly dwindled. Afterall, they are critically endangered, with only 92 individuals left in the vast expanse of the Cambodian-Laos portion of the Mekong River.

Minutes later a glimmer of hope arose. From the corner of our eyes, we spotted a jet of water shooting out of the little eddies. The creature vanished as quickly as it appeared, but we held on to that tiny sliver of hope that it would resurface. The engines shut off and we waited patiently, each person keeping their eyes peeled in different directions for the slightest disturbance. Shortly after, our seasoned boatman called out, pointing at a ripple on the murky water surface. Sure enough, the elusive, majestic Mekong dolphin surfaced and was greeted by five awestruck students, still in disbelief at they were able to experience this once in a lifetime sighting.

A Mekong Dolphin resurfacing for a breath of fresh air.

Commonly referred to as the Mekong Dolphin, Orcaella brevirostris has become one of the most famous animals along the Lower Mekong, drawing in tourists and researchers from around the world. Sadly, these graceful creatures are greatly threatened by illegal fishing activities[1], and their smiles may soon disappear from the Mekong, without effective conservation efforts.


Apart from generating thousands of dollars of tourist revenue for local communities, the Mekong dolphin serves as an important indicator of river ecosystem health. These dolphins are what scientists refer to as “keystone species” and are apex predators in a complex food web. Threats to the population of keystone species will impact other species in lower trophic levels through a trophic cascade, upsetting the delicate ecosystem balance[2][3]. This delicate balance supports the river’s fisheries, which happens to be the world’s largest inland fishery, producing approximately 2.1 million tonnes of fish annually to feed both the local population and Cambodia’s economy[4]. Through the trophic cascade, many fish species commonly traded and consumed in Cambodia’s fishing industry will inevitably be impacted too.

Different sources of protein produced by Cambodia[4]

Thus, by taking advantage of the their charismatic appearance, conservationists are keen on adopting the Mekong Dolphin as a flagship species of the Mekong. They serve as the face of conservation for all endangered species in the river (e.g. Giant Mekong Catfish, Giant Mekong Stingray)[5][6], and the ecosystem the fishery depends on. These dolphins are also an umbrella species, as through dolphin habitat protection, other important species that may be threatened by the similar anthropogenic pressures would be conserved. Therefore, the many roles of the Mekong Dolphin showcase how inherently intertwined these creatures are to both the river’s ecosystem and the fishing industry, and conservation of their species will inevitably benefit the Mekong River, its fishing industry and the local communities that live off the river.


Fortunately, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have stepped in to protect the Mekong Dolphin population. Through cooperation with the Cambodian government in the establishment of protected zones and increased education of local communities, the population seemed to have stabilized. Unfortunately, these measures face many obstacles, as lack of scientific data and corruption threaten to thwart all the progress NGOs have accomplished. Thus, it is critical that conservation efforts are stepped up, and stakeholders come together to achieve a common goal of protecting the Mekong Dolphin and the Mekong’s fishing industry.

Cooperation is pertinent in spearheading conservation efforts in the Mekong area. WWF Cambodia plays an essential role in the demarcation of the Mekong Aquatic Biodiversity Conservation Area, which spans from the length of the Mekong river from Kratie to Stung Treng, a vital biodiversity hotspot[7]. They also engages in community based outreach and awareness programmes, such as dolphin education visits to schools and pagodas[8]. Although positive in nature, these outreach efforts have limited scope.

The WWF office in Kratie Province, responsible for heading community efforts in the region.

Interviews with the locals highlighted the income they were able to generate through tourism. While money is essential in ensuring the survival of the locals, underlined flaws in their understanding of conservation, as the focus is placed on economic benefits nature can provide. When asked if NGOs engaged them on their intrinsic motivations towards biodiversity conservation, as well as the importance of the dolphins as an umbrella species, locals were uninformed. This reveals a gapping flaw in WWF’s surface-level outreach, as this lack of understanding can allow locals to be easily bought over by corrupt institutions.


When asked about the role of government in conservation, responses from our interviewees were slightly hesitant. Politics is a pertinent problem and the inability to address it effectively severely limits NGOs ability to further conservation efforts. With numerous dam projects along the Mekong River, the government’s focus on developing hydropower is brought into question, as biodiversity and food security is compromised[9]. Dam construction in the Vietnamese and Lao portions of the Mekong are also responsible for thwarting local conservation efforts and it severely impacts fish caught throughout the Mekong[9][10][11]. With regional relations at stake, the Cambodian government is forced into a difficult position. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the region’s politics and Cambodia’s economic status, the country does not have the means to account for its economy, relationship with its neighbors, and preservation of nature, simultaneously.

Map of the site of the Don Sahong Dam along the Lao-Cambodian border[11]


NGOs and the local government have involved local communities in conservation efforts within the Kam Pi region. Local villagers are educated on the importance of the Mekong Dolphin to the ecosystem’s health, trained to conduct patrols and arrests, and given equipment to provide surveillance within protected areas. Our interview with a dolphin patroller living in Koh Trung revealed that illegal fishing activities have declined since the start of their patrols, with successful captures going as low as 2 in the past year, compared to approximately four from the year before. However, electrocution fishing still pose significant threats to the dolphins. Due to lack of modern equipment and sufficient manpower, illegal fishing boats still escape the grasp of local patrollers. This is in spite of the fact that NGOs and the local government have provided improvements to their resources and been receptive to feedback from the patrollers. Hence, for dolphin patrols to be a truly effective conservation strategy, there is still a sizable gap that has to be filled.

Fishermen having illegal gillnets confiscated[12]

Through the interview, we were also made aware to the fact that local patrollers are restricted only to the protected areas set up by WWF. They have observed many instances of illegal fishing activities occurring outside the protected areas. As they are lacking in jurisdiction and authority, the patrollers can only sit back and watch from a distance. The WWF also expressed difficulties in gaining approval and trust from certain provincial authorities, raising the issue of politics and corruption yet again. Consequently, this leaves many biodiversity hotspots along the Mekong unprotected and vulnerable to illegal fishing and sand-mining. Furthermore, fishermen conducting illegal fishing activities find loopholes in the patrols over time which further reduces the effectiveness of local patrols. While patrollers attempt to vary their schedules and patrol routes, significant funding, training, planning and cooperation is still required at a governmental level to truly allow local efforts to be effective in combating illegal fishing.


While it seems like the Mekong Dolphins might be facing a losing battle, this is still a fight the world should not give up on. With the fate of the dolphins, fisheries and local communities intertwined, conservation must not be seen as only a benefit to nature, but toward the socio-economic stability of the region too.

The signature smile that gave the Mekong Dolphin its nickname: The Smiling Face of the Mekong[13]

Our perception towards the success of NGOs’ conservation efforts, is still very much dependent on factors such as the availability of continued financial support, local stakeholder agreements, continued governmental support and the accuracy and reliability of publicly available data. Thus, NGOs, governments and local communities need to consider the long-term repercussions of their actions, and work towards a mutually-beneficial future, where nature and society can coexist harmoniously along the Mekong River.



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  2. Carpenter, S. (2019, February 12). Trophic Cascade. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

  3. Mills, L.S., Soulé, M.E.& Doak, D.F. (1993). The Keystone-Species Concept in Ecology and Conservation. BioScience, 43(4), 219-224. doi: 10.2307/1312122

  4. Baran, E., Chheng Phen, Ly Vuthy, Nasielski, J., Saray Samadee, Touch Bunthang, Tress, J., Kaing Khim, Tan Sokhom. (2014). In: Atlas of Cambodia: Maps on Socio-Economic Development and Environment. Save Cambodia’s Wildlife, 37-48. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Retrieved from

  5. Hogan, Z. (2011). Pangasianodon gigas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T15944A5324699. Retrieved from

  6. Vidthayanon, C., Baird, I. & Hogan, Z. (2016). Urogymnus polylepis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T195320A104292419. Retrieved from

  7. Máiz-Tomé, L. (2019). Freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas in the Lower Mekong River Basin: Informing species conservation and investment planning in freshwater ecosystems. Retrieved from IUCN website

  8. WWF. (2016). The Last Mekong Dolphins of Cambodia: A Baby Is Born. Retrieved from

  9. Ziv, G., Baran, E., Nam, S., Rodríguez-Iturbe, I. & Levin, S.A. (2012). Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. PNAS, 109(15), 5609-5614. Retrieved from

  10. Coates, D., Poeu, O., Suntornratana, U., Tung, N.T. & Viravong, S. (2003). Biodiversity and fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin. Mekong Development Series No. 2. Mekong River Commission, Phnom Penh.

  11. International Rivers. (2015, November). The Don Sahong Dam: Gambling with Mekong Food Security and Livelihoods. Retrieved from

  12. The Water Hub. (2018). Good news for the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin. Retrieved from

  13. WWF. (n.d.). Irrawaddy Dolphin. Retrieved from