Rogue ‘Electro-Fishing’ Puts River Dolphins at Risk in Myanmar

National Geographic
17 February 2015

On a pale blue dawn on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (Burma), Maung Lay crouched at the front of his canoe, rapping the gunwale with a short stick. He then made a throaty, high-pitched purr, like the ringtone of an old telephone: his call for assistance.

On cue, the shiny gray flipper of a dolphin broke the surface and waved—dolphinese for: “We’re ready to cooperate.”

Standing up, Maung Lay pulled a pleated net over his right elbow and shook the lead weights woven into its hem against the hull. At the other end of the 15-foot (5-meter) boat, an assistant splashed the water with an oar.

More dolphins arrived, exhaling heavily as they breached the surface, their mission to corral schools of fish around the canoe. After about a minute, a dolphin flicked its tailfin out of the water, a sort of aquatic thumbs up. Maung Lay responded by casting his net in a wide arc into the tea-brown water.

But when he hauled the net back in, it was empty—not a single fish.

Such scenes are increasingly common on the Irrawaddy River. That’s because of “electro-fishing”—a new, and illegal, technique in which rogue fishermen send an electric current through the water to stun fish, making them easier to scoop up in bunches.

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