Along western Burma’s coastline thousands of people make their living from fishing.
In the harbour in Gwa Township, Arakan State, crews of fishermen sort through nets and ropes as they prepare to spend a night at sea.
A night on the water, however, could mean running into one of the many commercial and foreign fishing boats that operate in the area.
Fifty-five year-old Thein Aung has spent the past 25 years working as a fisherman on the Arakan coastline and is chief of a local boat. He said the local fishermen cannot compete with the foreign boats.
Once the local fishermen lay their nets the larger vessels will often pass through them, cutting the nets as they sail by. Thein Aung said it costs 20 million kyats (US$20,000) to replace them – a price that none of the fishermen can afford.
There is a sinister side to the competition as Thein Aung explains they have received threats and intimidation from the foreign boats.
“Some days there are about 19 ships in the area. When this happens, there is no place for us,” Thein Aung said. “We can’t ask for compensation when our nets are cut. We are even afraid of being killed. These ships are that bad.”
They are told to stick to the shallows to fish and not venture into deeper water.
However, this time of year — the early summer – yields the best catch, and Thein Aung cannot afford to miss a night of fishing. A net is cast into the water from one boat and is picked up by another. The two boats work together, forming a circle with the net to trap the fish. Once the circle is complete the crews start to haul in the nets.
On a good night the crew could earn a profit of US$200. After paying the boat rental fee and fuel, half will be shared among the crew and the other half will go to the boat owner, chief and captain.
Tonight they have caught enough fish to make a profit but Thein Aung is still wary of the bigger boats. As the crew work tirelessly, lights on other vessels twinkle nearby.
“Now they are shipping around the coast. Fishermen go out and they come across us. The boats cut the fishing nets. So the fishermen come back empty-handed. When this happens the crew have to sell their possessions at home,” said Thein Aung.
Luckily, the crew didn’t run into any commercial boats tonight but he said nights like this are getting few and far between.
Thirty years ago there were only a few local boats fishing off the waters around Burma. In the late 1980s the then military government started to sell fishing permits to foreign companies. In the last fiscal year the government earned an estimated US$12 million from selling these permits.
Htan Htun, vice chairman of Myanmar Fishery Federation (MFF), said that the unchecked and unregulated fishing industry has caused fish stocks off the coast of Burma to fall dramatically.
“There may be more than a thousand foreign fishing boats, operating legally and illegally. The local boats also increased. So the resources reduced,” he said.
No one knows the extent of overfishing on Burma’s coastline, or what damage to marine life has been done.
However, there could be hope on the horizon for local fishermen. In an attempt to ease overfishing, earlier this month Burma banned foreign fishing vessels from its waters.
Burmese fishing companies also have to reduce their operations by 35 percent during April and May to allow fish stocks to replenish.
Enforcement of the new rule is something only the government can ensure.