Groups step up efforts to save endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in Negros Occidental

BACOLOD CITY, Philippines – A school, local government units, and other groups have stepped up efforts to sustain the Irrawaddy dolphin conservation in Negros Occidental. 

The core team, led by 6 study leaders, presented the results and recommendations of the Commission on Higher Education-funded research project, dubbed as “Sustainability of Marine Protected Areas for Irrawaddy dolphins in Negros Occidental,” at Sugarland Hotel here on Thursday, January 30. 

The core habitat of Irrawaddy dolphins, locally known as lumba-lumba, is located near the mouth of Bago River, the second largest river in Negros Island. (READ: A whale of a tale in Bais)

According to the University of St La Salle research team, since Irrawaddy dolphins live very close to the shore they are constantly exposed to the coastal activities of communities. Among these threats are habitat degradation, heavy boat traffic, pollution, and possible entanglement in fishing gear. 

Romeo Teruel, USLS assistant vice chancellor for Research and Engagement, said the project was a collaboration of the school, the local governments of Bago and Pulupandan, Bago City College, and the Provincial Environment Management Office. , The project was carried out with a P14-million grant from CHED.

He said they sent the proposal in 2016 and it underwent several reviews. A year later, they got the funding and started with the research.

“The research is not very easy. That is why we really have to use the multisectoral approach and local government units will play an important role in this kind of research, especially that we are dealing with community members who have to know and accept that dolphins are important species to be conserved or to be protected,” Teruel explained.

The community  initially had very low awareness about the importance and existence of Irrawaddy dolphins in Bago and Pulupandan, he said. “They don't know about the dolphins, so we really need to change their behavior,” Teruel said. 

Teruel said they intensified their information education campaign in the coastal communities, and distributed educational materials to the grassroots.

Project components

Manuel de la Paz, research associate of USLS Center for Research and Engagement, said the project involves 6 research components: dolphin research, water quality, fisheries, livelihood and environmental advocacy, project impact, and tourism potential.

De la Paz, who led the research on the dolphin component, said there are about 12 Irrawaddy dolphins in the area. He said this was considered as “one of the smallest populations in the world.”

He stressed the importance of cooperation among the two LGUs and their neighboring localities in the conservation efforts. 

“It is important because there may be interaction with people. Activities of the people are also affecting the dolphins.... We need to also manage the people who are sharing the habitat,” he said.

De la Paz said that research includes recommendations to sustain conservation efforts in the marine protected area. 

“There will be areas that we hope will be left alone. So, of course, the fishermen will be affected. We did a study on what would be the possible alternative livelihood that we can provide to the fisherman because we are taking away their fishing grounds,” he said.

Dolphin-watching not recommended

De la Paz added they also investigated the potential of using Irrawaddy dolphins as form of tourism ambassadors for Bago and Pulupandan, which he did not recommend.

“Although for my research, I did not recommend dolphin watching and they agreed. We don't want any more boats in the area because boat traffic is always a problem and a disturbance to their natural behavior,” De la Paz said.

He said they were also looking to connect the project on the existing tourism programs of the LGUs. 

He said there was a change in the behavior of the community in terms of conservation. “At first, they were very against the marine protected area because it’s fishing grounds. Now, the fishermen themselves are rallying with us,” De la Paz said. 

He urged the public to help save the dolphins by using the “ecosystem approach.”

Among these are avoid throwing plastics and other toxic wastes into the sea, support local legislation on establishing marine protected areas, preserve mangrove habitats, and pressure the government to put high consideration on the dolphin habitat when planning for the Negros-Guimaras Bridge.

De la Paz said the bridge will most probably affect the dolphins because it is their core habitat, and there are dugongs at the other side of the island 

“We just hope this kind of information is considered during the planning process because that will affect our endangered wildlife and it would be irresponsible not to consider that,” he stressed. – Rappler.com