A Deadly Year for Dugongs

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Another dugong has died this year after becoming tangled in a fish trap, marking the 21st gentle sea cow to perish this year, by far the most to die since counting began. 

Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist and Kasetsart University lecturer, says that 2019 has seen nearly double the dugong deaths. “We have records of dugong deaths and in previous years, we would see a maximum of about 12 dugong deaths a year, so there’s not even a comparison,” he said of the count conducted for the past 15-or-so years.

He credited the spike in deaths to multiple factors including excessive plastic use and increased fishing, which has inadvertently impacted the dugong’s habitat. “Dugongs breathe through their lungs, so when they get caught in a fish trap, they will drown and die,” he said, adding that about 90% of dugong deaths are caused by humans and their fishing gear.

According to Thon, there are only about 250 dugongs left in Thailand. The most recent fullgrown adult found dead was discovered shrouded in a plastic net in the Khura Buri district of the southern Phang Nga province. August saw the tragic deaths of two baby sea cows rescued by marine biologists.

The first died from an infection exacerbated by bits of plastic lining her stomach while the second had seagrass clogging his digestive system. While Thailand’s top environmentalists have announced a project to promote large-scale conservation of dugongs and other wildlife – named The Mariam Project for the first orphaned dugong to die, Thon said it hasn’t been approved by the cabinet.

He had no clue when the government would review the proposal and refused to disclose the funding requested for it until after it wins approval. In August, Thon laid out some
of the things the project hopes to accomplish, including establishing a fund for wildlife conservation supported by the private sector and public alike.

The project would have an international flavour as well, he explained. “We are planning a global meeting to launch a global dugong meeting to join hands with other nations to address rare marine animal conservation and the sea pollution crisis,” he wrote in August, proposing Aug. 17 be declared “National Dugong Day” in tribute to Mariam.

Thon’s goal is to increase Thailand’s dugong population by half to 375 within 10 years. He added that the support and cooperation of the public in consuming less plastic would make a huge impact. “The biggest thing everyone can do is actively try to use less plastic every day. That will help a lot,” he said.

By Hua Hin Today

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