Young Myanmar researchers receive award for marine mammal research in the Gulf of Mottama

A little over one year ago, we confirmed - with our own eyes - the presence of Indo-Pacific Finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides, Vulnerable) and Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris, Endangered) in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mottama.  We jumped up and down in the boat, ecstatic to finally have these sightings after months of exploratory “detective work” interviewing fishers and waiting for boat-friendly dry season to return.  Some months later, we added Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis, Vulnerable) to the list when they swam by the survey boat for the first time. 

Of course, local fishers had long known about these animals.  In fact, they were the ones who first told us about them.  Based on the information they shared, our team became the first to do research on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mottama, and this is the only active marine mammal project along Myanmar’s long coastline.

This team is made up of young researchers from the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (MCCL) at Point B Design + Training, a research and education NGO based in Mawlamyine.  Point B MCCL conducts research and research training for SDC’s Gulf of Mottama Project, which supports coastal natural resource management in the gulf, an area of extraordinary biological productivity.  The project’s biodiversity component initially focused on migratory shorebirds, but has now broadened after we confirmed the presence of these three small cetacean species.

Because there has been so little research done on its marine mammals, Myanmar has not been well represented at international conferences on marine mammal research and conservation.  In December 2019, with project support, MCCL’s Yin Yin Htay, Aung Naing Soe, and Wint Hte participated in the World Marine Mammal Conference (WMMC) in Barcelona.  WMMC is the largest and most important gathering of marine mammal researchers in the world and this was a valuable opportunity for young Myanmar researchers to meet global experts and regional colleagues, strengthen their knowledge of marine mammals, identify future collaborations, and raise the profile of the Gulf of Mottama Project.

On top of all of the inspiration they gained from the conference, the team received the J. Stephen Leatherwood Award for most outstanding presentation on marine mammal research and conservation in South and Southeast Asia.  This award reflects not only their stellar poster presentation, but also the award committee’s enthusiasm for representation from Myanmar, particularly with so many young Myanmar researchers included as authors on the poster (20 in total).

Accepted the Stephen Leatherwood Award for research and conservation in South and Southeast Asia Photo: Accepted the Stephen Leatherwood Award for research and conservation in South and Southeast Asia © Tara Whitty

The long author list reflects how this research was a valuable, and in many cases first, opportunity for young Myanmar researchers to learn about the importance of working with communities to collect local ecological knowledge and organize boats-based surveys.  It was also a chance to learn about coastal conservation and fisheries more broadly.  

The conference experience and the award have added to the team’s motivation to expand their work on marine mammal conservation.  They are now better equipped to do so, with greater knowledge and experience.  Many thanks to the Gulf of Mottama Project for supporting this research and the opportunity to attend this career-changing conference!

The Gulf of Mottama Project is an initiative of SDC, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, implemented by a consortium led by HELVETAS, together with NAG and IUCN.  The project started in 2015 and is currently in its second phase.

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