Protecting fish stocks in Myanmar

The people in the Gulf of Mottama live from fishing. Read how they try to regulate stocks with the help of Helvetas.
TEXT: Hanspeter Bundi – PHOTOS / VIDEOS: Flurina Rothenberger – 21. August 2017

Like their forefathers, Win Tun and Than Aye are proud fisherman. They live by the Gulf of Mottama in Myanmar, where the rivers flowing into the sea make for an ideal spawning ground. Fishermen are now pooling their forces to preserve this ecotope.

Everything is fish in Than Aye and Win Tun’s life. The house smells like fish. Their joys and worries are about fish, and both are from fishing families, in which the occupation is handed down from father to son from one generation to the next.Than Aye is 46 years old and Buddhist. Her husband Win Tun is six years younger and Muslim. They have five children aged 4 to 22. “We’re not rich, we’re not poor either,” says Than Aye. “We have a roof over our heads and always have something to eat.” Their everyday lives are ordered by the natural rhythm of the tides.

© Helvetas
Than Aye (l.), Win Tun and their youngest son. © Helvetas
1/3
© Helvetas
Than Aye and Win Tun on their way to their boat. © Helvetas
2/3
© Helvetas
Win Tun prepares his boat for fishing. © Helvetas
3/3

Upon reaching their house, we’re a bit disappointed: far and wide, no sea in sight. Only on days around the new and full moon is the tide high enough to flood the canals and inlets by the fishing villages. “Come, I’ll show you my boat,” says Win Tun.

Win Tun’s boat lies hulking and helpless in the sand only a few steps from the house. And yet in just a few days it will be rocking in the waves when Win Tun and some helpers head out to sea for a fortnight. Sometimes, says Than Aye, her husband is like a hero. We ask whether she’s never afraid for him. She’s afraid, she says: 

«But it was harder before we had mobile phones. Often I wouldn’t hear from him for two whole weeks at a time. But now we talk on the phone daily.»

Than Aye, wife

On the short walk to the boat we passed a statue of U Shin Gyi, the guardian spirit of waterways. Before the fishermen put to sea, they lay little offerings, betel nuts, rice or sugar, for example, at U Shin Gyi’s feet.

We ask Than Aye whether she sometimes prays for her husband to get back safely. She leads us to the Buddha shrine she has built upstairs in her house. “This is where I pray with the children,” she says.

© Helvetas
Than Aye prays for the safe return of her husband. © Helvetas
1/2
© Helvetas
Shin Gyis is the goddess of the waterways. © Helvetas
2/2

Fishing provides a livelihood for tens of thousands of people along the Gulf of Mottama: not just fishing families, but merchants, market women, boatbuilders and factory workers, too. There are three factories on Myanmar’s east coast that buy up and export fish.

Soe Win is a shareholder and co-director of Mawlamyaing Holding Ltd. He is delighted and proud to show us the factory he and his partners have built up over the course of twenty years. In the clean cool processing shed, workers wrap the fish and arrange them in the deep-freeze room. The fish are exported straight from here to China, Malaysia and Singapore.

Fish with even slight wounds or that otherwise fall short of the preferences of foreign consumers are sold to local or regional markets. A wide variety of fish is to be had at the Thaton fish market. We walk down the narrow aisles between the vendors’ stands, regretting that we can’t stay here, buy some fish and cook it up, and then come back and taste the whole panoply of seafood on offer.

© Helvetas
Traders at the Thaton fish market. © Helvetas
1/3
© Helvetas
Traders at the Thaton fish market. © Helvetas
2/3
© Helvetas
Traders at the Thaton fish market. © Helvetas
3/3

In a remote fishing village we meet Thein Myant, a middleman who takes fish for export from the boats to the factories. For the fishermen of Saik Ka Ye, he is not an adversary, he’s one of them: a respected member of his village’s fishermen’s committee, for he pays fair prices and even brings the ice for the coolers.

© Helvetas
Thein Myant is a member of the fishermen's committee. © Helvetas

Almost all the households in Saik Ka Ye live from fishing. But the world of the fishermen, their life to the rhythm of the tides and the ups and downs of daily success and disappointment, is in jeopardy. The fish population along Myanmar’s shores has plummeted by as much as 90% since 1979. This is “grounds for great concern”, as it says in a report by Norwegian researchers.

Half a year ago the fishermen set up a committee of their own to take stock of their situation and their endangered fishing grounds. They tell us how local development experts are teaching them how to run an organization and get a hearing from the authorities.

We drive by dried-up rice fields and canals to the gulf, where the fishing boats are moored. We stand there under the blistering sun, marveling at the sheer expanse of the mudflats lining the Gulf of Mottama and what a long hard slog it must be to find good fishing grounds.

© Helvetas
The boats are ready to go out to sea. © Helvetas

Over 30 villages along the Gulf of Mottama are involved in a project for sustainable management of fishing grounds and protection of the environment. Helvetas has been commissioned by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to implement the project. So we are working with fishermen and merchants, large-scale exporters, the authorities and, above all, the village development committees in which gulf coast residents decide the future of their village – and of their own livelihood.

We ask Win Tun whether he has noticed the decline in the catch. “I bring home almost as much fish as I used to,” is his initial answer. In the ensuing conversation, however, it turns out that he has to work longer and harder for that catch and that the really big fish have grown scarcer.

Everyone we ask about the decline agrees on one thing: there are still too many fishermen using fine mesh nets. And they disturb the natural reproduction by failing to respect the spawning periods.

«Of course the fishermen realize what they’re doing. But they’re dependent on their day-to-day earnings. They don’t know what else to do.»

Soe Win, director of Mawlamyaing Holding Ltd.

But the men on the fishing committees are doing something about the fine mesh nets. “When we find out someone is using prohibited nets, we directly confront him,” says Thein Myant, the middleman. This tactic is working for the fishermen of Saik Ka Ye: no one in the village uses the banned nets anymore.

© Helvetas
Win Tun, Than Aye and their children. © Helvetas

We know from other conservation projects that bans and prohibitions alone are not enough, which is why we promote the development of handicrafts, trade and agriculture in the Gulf of Mottama. The people here should not be forced to destroy their own livelihood anymore in the daily struggle for survival.

But fishing should also retain its appeal for the next generation. For Win Tun’s 17-year-old son, Yae Thewe, for example, who will soon have to take the helm on his father’s boat.

«Happiness is when I get to cast the net. Happiness is when I dive down to unsnag a net. Happiness is catching lots of fish.»

Yae Thewe, son

Changing Perspectives

Exercising his profession for a week in another country and getting to know the everyday life of his colleagues: this dream came true for four young plumbers from Switzerland and Nepal.

Hoping for a Better Life

Day after day over 1500 mostly young people leave Nepal. One of them is Suraj Ghalan, who wants to work in Saudi Arabia.

The Rise of the Shahi Family

The history of the Sahi family shows that real change is possible. Not overnight, but from generation to generation.