“Our vision is to ensure a sufficiency of fish supplies not only for the present entire national people but also for future generations by conserving of the fisheries resources with sustainable fisheries at all times.” Thus goes the vision of the Myanmar Department of Fisheries.
Since the elected government came into power in 2010, there have been many dramatic changes in Myanmar's economic landscape. Among them, the food production sector has been one of the most dynamic. The fishery sector is considered as the second most important food producing sector in Myanmar, only second to the agriculture sector. Being an important source of protein to the Myanmar people, it provides food security as well as employment opportunity to a large number of fishery communities and rural dwellers. According to a 2012 report by CBI and LEI Wageningen UR, Myanmar seafood sector employed approximately 3-4 million people directly or indirectly.
Myanmar is endowed with rich natural resources both in freshwater and marine fisheries. While the opportunities in the fishery sector should be exploited, sustainability must also be preserved for the generations to come.
According to the nature of catch, fisheries in Myanmar can be classified into two main categories: freshwater fisheries and marine fisheries. Freshwater fisheries consist of fish culture, leasable fisheries, and open fisheries. Currently over 20 species of freshwater fish such as major and common carps, tilapia and catfish are being cultured. Rohu (Labeo rohita) stands as the most common and commercially cultured fish species native to Myanmar. Usually, freshwater fisheries target the domestic market.
On the other hand, marine fisheries focus mainly on the export market and include inshore fisheries and off-shore fisheries. In inshore fisheries, fishing boats operate from shoreline within 10 nautical miles. They are built by traditional methods with lengths not exceeding 30 feet and use 25-HP engines or smaller. In offshore fisheries, the fishing vessels operate beyond the outer limit of the inshore fishing zone up to the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The fishing vessels for offshore fisheries are more than 30 feet in length and use 25-HP engines or bigger.
Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal region consists of coastal fishing grounds in Rakhine State, delta Ayeyarwaddy Region, and Tanintharyi Region. These fisheries are coastal demersal, shrimp, and small pelagic, as well as offshore fisheries for tuna and similar species.
Aquaculture is also a significant part of the fisheries sector in Myanmar. According to the Fishery Statistics 2014 report by the Department of Fisheries, aquaculture areas have increased from 12,255 ha in FY 1990-1991 to 180,614 ha in FY 2012-2013. Likewise, aquaculture production has also risen significantly from 6,397 MT in FY 1990-1991 to 944,809 MT in FY 2012-2013. In terms of shrimp farms, Myanmar has three types: semi-intensive shrimp ponds (1,774 hectares), extensive plus shrimp ponds (37,155 hectares), and extensive or traditional shrimp ponds (53,496 hectares)—totaling 92,427 hectares. Production from those ponds was reported at 57,046 MT as of FY 2013-2014.
A total of 32,294 culturists were involved in various aquaculture systems. Myanmar’s aquaculture is based mainly on pond cultured system, and predominantly male laborers are employed in the fish/shrimp ponds. There are about 126,000 permanent laborers working in 2014.
Inspection and Certification
The Inspection and Certification Section under Fish Inspection and Quality Control Division of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development is responsible for overseeing the exported fish and fishery products according to the food safety management systems.
The Section aims to improve quality wholesomeness and safety of fishery products for human consumption and minimize post-harvest loss. It has been developing and applying quality and safety management systems that ensure food safety through the implementation, validation, and verification of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) based system. Moreover, it has adapted quality and safety management systems to develop and implement GMP guidelines and compliance with international standards. The Section is also responsible for the monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) activities to ensure the quality and safety of fish and fishery products.
According to the Fishery Statistics 2014 report, the Inspection and Certification Section consists of only 2 officers and 24 staffs to enforce safety management systems on processing factories. During FY 2013-2014, it issued 114 factory licenses. Since 2009, EU has provided technical assistance and training to the Department of Fisheries to help Myanmar fisheries attain the mandatory standards under the GMP and HACCP systems.
So far, investment in Myanmar’s fisheries sector has been extremely low. According to U Myo Nyunt, secretary of the Myanmar Fishery Products Processors and Exporters Association, there are only 135 licensed seafood processors in Myanmar, owned and operated by mostly local entrepreneurs. Statistics from DICA indicates that from 1989 to the end of November 2014, there are only 15 companies contributing to the direct foreign investment in the livestock and fisheries sector, with the total amount of US$ 190.8 million. Compared with the total FDI of US$ 40.5 billion during the same period, this accounts for only 0.47 percent. For FY 2013-2014, only US$ 96 million was invested in the livestock and fisheries sector, a mere 2.3 percent of the total FDI in that year. The reasons for this low level of investment are still unclear, but the main causes seem to be uncertain returns, high variable costs, and land tenure-ship issues.
Currently, most of the fishery products are exported to China, Japan, Australia, the USA, and the EU. Since July 2013, the European Union has restored the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status of Myanmar. Moreover, with the recent opening of the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar in December 2014, the bilateral trade between Myanmar and EU is expected to rise significantly, and the role of marine products will feature heavily in the potential exports to the EU. First comer advantages would be available to those who invest in the hatcheries, farms, and processing factories for Myanmar's marine products.
Despite Myanmar’s abundant fishery resources, over-exploitation is becoming a tremendous threat to the sustainability of the fisheries sector. Indeed, unregulated fishing and over-exploitation have pushed the official numbers up for the past ten years. Despite the official figures, however, the raw volume brought to the market has been in steady decline for the past 3 years, according to U Myo Nyunt. Some independent researchers are even claiming 90 percent depletion of the stock, particularly within the Tanintharyi coastal fishing grounds.
Over-exploitation has also led to the decline in the quality of the catch. The EU, Myanmar’s most important destination for marine exports, also maintains the most rigorous inspection and certification standards on the products. For example, it allows entry of fishery products only if proper marking or labels indicate on the followings:
- The commercial designation of the species
- The production method (caught at sea, in inland waters, or farmed)
- The catch or production area
The fall in the percentage of exportable catch further reduces the subsequent exports to the EU and other markets. Ministry of Commerce’s statistics indicates that the marine exports in the calendar year 2014 totaled US$ 316.4 million, representing a 22.5 percent decline from US$ 408.6 million in the previous year.
In order to address the issue of unregulated fishing and over-exploitation, the Department of Fisheries has extended the establishment of 13 check points for inspection of local fishing vessels in all coastal areas. These check points are located in Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Thandwe, Hygyi, Pathein, Pyapon, Yangon, Zephyuthaung, Dawei, Myeik, Wakyun, Plontontone, and Kauthaung. These checkpoints are primarily intended to regulate the local fishing industry and reduce overfishing and catching endangered species of marine life.
While sectors such as oil & gas and mining are currently receiving all the attention in Myanmar, the fisheries sector offers a lot of potentials which are largely untapped. Investors should and could fully explore the opportunities arising from the eased sanctions by the US and the EU and the growing demand by the Chinese and ASEAN markets. On the other hand, in addition to the usual challenges which beset Myanmar industries such as electricity, logistics, and technical difficulties, the over-fishing (over-exploitation) of the existing stocks must be solved with the cooperation of the government, private sector, and NGO’s. Overcoming these myriad challenges and difficulties will bring the fisheries out of the troubled waters.