Dolphins in the Mekong River receive some degree of protection from the traditional respect afforded by local fishermen (Baird et al. 1994, Beasley et al. 2003). Fishermen in Viet Nam worship whales and dolphins because they believe that the animals will aid them if they are in distress (Smith et al. 1997). Most Cambodians and Laotians say that they do not hunt dolphins and believe that bad luck will result from killing them (Baird et al. 1994). The Lao Community Fisheries and Dolphin Protection Project was working with local fishermen at Chiteal Pool to reduce incidental catches of dolphins in gillnets, stop explosive fishing and manage aquatic resources in a sustainable manner (Perrin et al. 1996). One practical measure was the establishment of a fund so that fishermen who found dolphins entangled in their nets and cut them free would be compensated for damages (Baird et al. 1994). However, this project has now stopped. Small-scale dolphin watching operations were established at Chiteal Pool (Laos/Cambodia border) in 1997, and this provided substantial income to a few local boat owners. However, due to the decline in dolphin numbers at this pool, the tour operations are now on the verge of collapse. Dolphin-watching also occurs at Kampi Pool and a project partially funded by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, UK, is planned for 2004 to manage the operations so that they provide maximum benefits to the local community (and thereby increase the value of the dolphins as living resources) while not adversely affecting the animals.
In Laos, dolphins are legally protected from hunting, capture and trade, with fines of US$ 65?650 and imprisonment for three months to one year. In Viet Nam, all cetaceans are protected by a decree of the national assembly but this is not generally enforced. During the last three years, the Viet Namese government has been drafting a new law that will give authorities greater power to enforce fishery regulations (Perrin et al., in press). Approval by the national assembly is expected in the near future. No legal protection for cetaceans currently exists in Cambodia. However, a fisheries law is being drafted that includes specific regulations pertaining to marine mammals and the Cambodian Department of Fisheries has proposed to formulate a Royal Decree for protecting the Mekong River dolphin population.
The Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project (currently supported by the Mekong River Commission and Ocean Park Conservation Foundation) was initiated in January 2001. The aims of the project are to assess the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin population, initiate conservation and management efforts, and build capacity among local government officials. The project works in cooperation with the Cambodian Department of Fisheries, the Wildlife Conservation Society ? Cambodia Program and Community Aid Abroad.
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