Bringing Myanmar’s fishing, aquaculture into the 21st century

Myanmar is endowed with rich natural resources in its coastal waters, inland rivers and lakes, and the country’s re-emergence into the world of trade offers it exciting opportunities to address sustainability and conservation issues, along with its export potential.

According to official statistics, total seafood production in 2013 was 4.7 million metric tons (MT), 47 percent from freshwater and 53 percent from the sea.

Just over 377,000 MT of seafood – just 8 percent of production – was exported in that year, with a total value of USD 653 million (EUR 614.9 million), split between fish (USD 378 million, EUR 356 million), shrimp (USD 89 million, EUR 83.8 million) and other species (USD 185 million, EUR 174.2 million).

The top ten species exported were Rohu carp, eel, tiger shrimp, live crab, hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha), white pomfret, sea-caught pink shrimp, ribbonfish, dried shrimp and Penaeus vannamei shrimp. Major importing countries were Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and China, with lesser volumes exported to Hong Kong, the United States, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, UAE and Australia among others.  

The majority of seafood produced in Myanmar is sold for local consumption and a plethora of different species can be found on its colorful street markets. Seafood plays a major part in the diet, with an average per capita consumption of 56kg; more than four times as much as the average U.S. citizen.

Rohu, Mrigal and Catla carps are the major species cultured, accounting for around 80 percent of fish aquaculture production. The remainder is made up of pangasius, tilapia, pacu, grass, common and silver carps, bighead, snakehead, catfish, seabass and grouper. Fish production is encouraged in rice paddies, and polyculture is popular in inland ponds, many of which feature chicken farms, built out from the shore on bamboo stilts. Waste from these, which drops straight into the lake, provides valuable nutrients for the fish.

A survey in 2013 of the offshore marine capture fishery showed a significant decline in the stock, which led to the state terminating foreign fishing in its waters in 2014. A closed fishing season and demarcated “no fishing” zones for local fisherman was also put in place, but with little in the way of monitoring, surveillance and control, such measures are not effective.

The Myanmar Fisheries Federation (MFF) is working to persuade the government to seek international assistance to put proper monitoring systems in place, and also to improve its aquaculture industry.

U Hnin Oo, senior vice president of the MFF, explained that Myanmar’s shrimp industry has never recovered from the devastation inflicted by cyclone Nargis in 2008, and is currently struggling with disease problems and a lack of investment, technological know-how and trained operators.

“We see great potential to improve our seafood industry,” he said. “At present just 20 of the country’s 125 processing plants are certified to export to the EU and most of these are merely freezing product, rather that adding value. We need to increase the raw material availability by investing in fisheries and aquaculture, which will in turn encourage processors to invest in value-adding. This in turn would help them to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the recent lifting of economic sanctions.”

“To do this, we need stronger legislation, international financial and technical assistance for conservation and R&D, a robust aquaculture strategy aligned to Best Aquaculture Practice, new hatcheries and technical know-how, new aqua-feed factories and upgraded processing plants. It is a lot to ask for but the rewards will be good,” he said.

The first glimmer of light comes in the form of a USD 1.7 million (EUR 1.6 million) USAID funded 3-year project led by the University of Arizona to help develop a sustainable seafood industry infrastructure in Myanmar.

Run as a partnership between the University of Arizona, the Universities of Yangon and Pathein in Myanmar and the MFF, the project is also working with international partners including DuPont, RippleFish, Tiran Group, Handy Seafood, Auburn University, the Asian Institute of Technology, Relief International, Aquaculture without Frontiers and several NGOs.

In 2016, Myanmar will join the Southeast Asia Free Trade Zone, so speed is important if its seafood industry is to catch up with its Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian partners, who have already invested heavily in their seafood industries.

“A major objective of the project is to develop a seafood safety laboratory at Yangon University. This will operate as a service lab for the industry and as a training lab for university students and processors needing to set up quality assurance labs for export purposes. The project will also work directly with fishers and farmers to improve product quality from the boat or pond, through the supply chain to the customer,” said project leader Professor Kevin Fitzsimmons.

Other important aspects are to work on crab, shrimp and fish hatcheries and nurseries, on-farm sanitation, an aquaculture-seafood business dictionary, nutrition and aquaculture feed technology, mangrove restoration, and to provide scholarships and internship opportunities. There will be a special focus on eels, soft-shell crabs, Macrobranchium prawns and tilapia with the corporate partners.

Dr Toe Nandar Tin, Chair of the Anawa Devi Fishing and General Trading Cooperative and one of the few women working at a high level in the industry, explained that getting the government to make a real commitment to infrastructure improvements was a major first hurdle.

“We are pleased to see international assistance starting to make a difference. There is real will from industry to succeed, but we can only do it with outside help,” she said.


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