Rakhine fisherfolk left out of export boom
Despite record-breaking exports in the fishing industry during the past two years, ordinary fisherfolk in Rakhine State say they have not benefitted.
MORE than 560,000 tonnes of fish were exported last year, the highest volume in the past 20 years, worth over US$700 million (K1.1 trillion), according to the government.
But these figures do not matter to fishermen such as Ko Than Zaw Htway, who said that despite the area’s rich marine resources, they live in abject poverty.
“We are poor. Rakhine’s coast is long and rich in natural resources, but Rakhine is among the poorest regions in the country,” he said.
Another fisherman, Ko Than Zaw Oo, blamed increasing competition.
“The population is increasing but the sea is not. The number of fishermen is increasing too, so we are suffering,” he said.
Although he has been a fisherman for more than 20 years, he is still unable to buy his own boat.
He works on someone else’s boat catching fish and shrimp at inshore sites along with 40 colleagues. They share the income from their catch equally with the vessel owner.
“We spend K500,000 (US$314) to K600,000 a month to operate our boat. Fuel costs K240,000 per barrel. We have to limit our use to one barrel per month. Forget about catching fish, fuel is used as soon as you leave for sea.
“I make about K150,000 to K200,000 a month. It is just enough to buy food for my family,” said Ko Than Zaw Oo, who lives in Pone Nyet village in Kyeintali sub-township, Gwa township.
U Khin Aye, 63, also of Kyeintali, has been a fisherman since he was 13. Even though he owns fishing boats, his complaints are the same.
“There has been little improvement in my living conditions, but I have to keep fishing, since I can’t do any other work. The situation is worse now. We aren’t catching as much as before because of foreign fishing vessels. It would be better if foreign vessels were controlled,” he said.
Kyeintali has seen very little economic development. There are nine other villages along a 38.6-kilometre stretch of coast in the area where the people mainly make a living by fishing.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation classifies vessels with 25 horsepower engines and lengths of less than 7 metres as inshore fishing boats. They are authorised to fish up 10 nautical miles (18.5km) from the coast. Anything larger is classified as an offshore fishing vessel.
Fishing vessels are authorised to work in Rakhine waters most of the year, except for the monsoon months of June, July and August.
There are 4700 inshore fishing boats and 370 offshore fishing boats licensed by the Rakhine Fishery Department. There are also an estimated 7000 small fishing boats with no engines. Only 43 offshore vessels are owned by residents of the state, said department Deputy Head U Naing Win Thein.
U Zaw Min Tun, who owns several fishing boats, said incursions by foreign fishing vessels, rising commodity prices, and depletion and degradation of marine resources are the main problems facing Rakhine’s fisherfolk.
He says catches have declined about 70 percent from 15 years ago, but the prices of fish have remained relatively unchanged. He also said the fish they catch are getting smaller, so they don’t fetch good prices.
“In the past, we could catch about 100 viss (one viss, a traditional measurement, is equal to 1.6 kilogram), but now we can catch only 10 or 20 viss. Prices are between K6000 and K10,000 a viss,” said U Zaw Min Tun.
The drastic drop in income has taken a toll on fishing families.
Near a beach in Kywel Chaing village of Kyeintali, women dry small fish over blue fishing nets. They receive K12,000 per basket of the fish, called ngar kone nyo. They have to share the income among themselves.
“Income is not regular. We get more if we dry more fish. I make from K3000 to K10,000 a day,” said Ma Moe Moe Aye, adding that she has to work because her husband’s income is not enough to support their two children.
Her eldest son also works as a fisherman to help the family supplement its meagre income, as they have to pay for the treatment of her other son for a speech problem.
“We have a disabled child, so we have to work. Commodity prices are rising but we have little income. I am lucky I have work,” she said.
To revive the fishing industry in Kyeintali, a three-year project was launched in 2016 to establish an inshore fisheries co-management area with funding from Britain’s Darwin Initiative and the Wildlife Conservation Society-myanmar (WCS).
On August 8, the Fishery Department designated a 725sq-km co-management area.
Under the project, a committee of 10 local fishermen and the department will designate fish preservation zones, seasonal non-fishing zones, fishingequipment restriction zones, and sea turtle conservation banks.
“Everyone must cooperate to help the industry. The project is for the good of the people in 10 villages and we will work closely with them,” U Kyaw Thinn Latt, WCS senior strategy marine manager, said.
U Myint Zin Htoo, deputy director general of the department, said it will set up checkpoints to inspect nets used on fishing boats to ensure that catches do not exceed limits.
“Fishing nets will be scrutinised before the boats set out to sea,” he said. “If they don’t follow regulations, we will arrest them and inform the Fisheries Department. The department takes care of the seized items and those arrested must go to court.”
But U Myint Zin Htoo admitted the department has limited resources to monitor such a big area, so he appealed for help from local residents.
“There are only five fisheries officers in Kyeintali. We need the participation of residents. We need sustainable development to increase the number of fish,” he said. “If they catch fish without restraint, there may be a day when none are left.”
According to the fisheries law, boats caught breaking the law will be suspended from fishing for three months and fined K3 million the first time. Second-time offenders face sixmonth suspensions and K6 million fines, and third-time offenders could lose their licences.
General U Myint Zin Htu, deputy director general of the department, said each year the government seizes 60 to 70 boats for breaking the law. He added that from January to October this year, around 50 fishing boats were caught for first-time violations.
According to a survey of the marine ecosystem in the area by the department and Norwegian experts, the shallow water fish population declined by 90pc between 1980 and 2013, while deep water fish declined by 75pc.
While the country’s fish exports to China, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and European countries have recorded impressive growth, ordinary fishermen like U Zaw Min Tun appear to have been left out of the windfall.
“I don’t know how much money the country makes from fishing, but more help to make our lives better would be good. We would be satisfied if the authorities stopped foreign vessels from using our traditional fishing grounds,” he said.