This past March 30, as Aung San Suu Ky’s National League for Democracy (NLD) engaged in a historic transfer of power in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw, my Burmese colleagues and I stood on a deserted beach 170 miles to the southwest, near Gwa on the Rakhine coast. We were speaking to local fishermen about their livelihoods and hearing about the unfortunate death of a young dugong – Southeast Asia’s cousin of the manatee.
To the naked eye, the blue sea and miles of white sand with no development or people in sight were a vision of paradise. And yet, as we learned, below the surface things were far from idyllic. The young dugong that accidentally drowned in a fishing net was just one symptom of another tragedy and challenge unfolding in this country – one that while nearly unnoticed could have major implications for the future of millions of rural people.
Literally out of sight, the country’s marine resources have been pillaged almost to the point of no return. Research data released in February of this year by the Norwegian Government demonstrated a decline in Myanmar’s oceanic and coastal fish stocks of between 70-90 percent since the late 1980’s.
The previous day, I had listened to U Myint Aung, the leader of a local community conservation group set up to protect nesting sea turtles, describing the decline in adult turtles now successfully returning to his beach. At the current rate he feared none would come back next year.
The turtle deaths appear to result primarily from a growing recent demand for a large marine fish called the croaker. Their swim-bladders are now such a sought-after delicacy in parts of China that individual fish can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Not surprisingly, a targeted fishery has developed in response, but the nets used in the process entangle other species like sea turtles and dugongs.
U Myint Aung himself had ceased working as a coastal fisherman when catches declined to the point where he could no longer make a living. Instead he ekes out a living from farming peanuts on the sandy soil behind the beach during the rainy season and devotes the rest of his time to protecting the remaining turtles.
Such tragic stories were commonplace. Poorly governed marine waters had led to the arrival of larger industrial vessels both from other areas of Myanmar and neighboring countries. Use of illegal fishing gear had grown, as had even cruder methods like cyanide poisoning to access anything of remaining value.
But the status of marine fisheries isn’t the only thing significantly changing on Myanmar’s coast. Aside from a few tourists, the only other foreign visitors we ran into worked with the offshore gas industry. In the last 18 months multiple licenses for offshore gas blocks have been issued to a variety of western companies including Shell, Chevron, Woodside, and Statoil, among others.
These investments will alter the future of Myanmar’s ocean waters and economy forever. Yet opportunities exist for such global companies to work with both Aung San Suu Kyi’s new Government and coastal communities to promote a very different future for Myanmar’s marine resources.
Precedents for such approaches exist. Perhaps one of the best is in Gabon, where in 2013 President Ali Bongo created the ‘Gabon Bleu’ initiative. Gabon’s Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux works in partnership with a number of major international oil and gas companies and the Wildlife Conservation Society to improve management of marine resources as a key pillar of the country’s development strategy.
This has resulted in the creation of 10 marine parks covering more than 18,000 square miles and encompassing about 23 percent of Gabon’s Exclusive Economic Zone. New community fishery zones promote local livelihoods based on sustainable fisheries management as well as designating areas exclusively for community or industrial fisheries.
In Myanmar similar planning approaches and partnerships could safeguard the ocean against illegal fishing and foreign industrial vessels. Local networks of no-take marine reserves have been proven to work around the world, and could include areas where fisheries are excluded for safety reasons around gas infrastructure.
Such initiatives could relatively quickly encourage the recovery of fish stocks while protecting endangered species like sea turtles, dugongs, and dolphins.
Myanmar’s new Government faces a myriad of challenges, but if it wishes to develop the economy while increasing livelihood options for millions of rural people, it must create solutions for the thus far hidden problems of the country’s oceans.
Finding answers to this particular challenge could be one of the NLD’s early win-wins. If successful, U Myint Aung and his team could look to protecting more – not fewer – sea turtles returning to Rakhine’s beaches every year. And perhaps future generations in his village, and others along the coastline we visited, could look back to the sea again with hopes for a brighter blue future.
Colin Poole is a Regional Director at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) based in Cambodia.
The original article appeared on The Guardian.