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Myanmar: Giving Fishers a Voice

As part of my work with the Smithsonian Marine Conservation Program I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar last year. I spent most of my time in a small fishing community near Dawei on the southwest coast.

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The small fishing community of Thabauseik

Using seascape genetics, fisheries economics, spatial modeling and remote sensing, the Marine Conservation Program works with local communities and governments to identify the best locations to establish marine protected areas and mechanisms to improve the efficacy of marine management. This research provides a basis for informed planning and decision making to conserve marine species and habitats at multiple scales.Smithsonian’s Marine Conservation Program is an interdisciplinary research program to understand changes over space and time in commercially and ecologically important marine species. The program also tracks the work of fishers who rely on these ecosystems, introducing a new, integrated approach to marine conservation using ecological, social, and economic perspectives to better understand coastal ecosystems and how they change over time.

Due to the success of the program in Central America it is now being rolled out across the Pacific Coast of Colombia and now, the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar. The Tanintharyi stretches across 400 miles of coastline, encompassing coastal systems of mangroves, seagrass, and mudflats, as well as the fringing coral reefs around the 800 islands of the Myeik archipelago and beyond to the open marine environment of the Andaman Sea.

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Traditional Burmese fishing boats in the rain

The main objective on this trip was to initiate the program which ultimately aims to try and understand the region’s artisanal fisheries. Essentially this involves working out who is fishing, where they are going, what methods they are using and how many fish they are catching. The first step in this process is to create a registration database of all the fishermen and then issue ID cards. The next is to install monitoring systems on the boats which track movements and then we begin to monitor catches.

Aside from all this one of my objectives was to photograph the community and show their daily activities – these photographs would be used to promote the project which is rapidly being rolled out in developing countries across the world.

With some of these images you can’t escape the obvious emotional reaction, which most people I know would have, but what you don’t expect, and what you generally don’t get when you read about or watch these things on the telly, is a connection to real people and a realisation that this is really their only option for survival. I don’t know what the answer is….this is a daily life in just one small community among thousands all struggling to survive using whatever means possible! Maybe, as human population continues to increase and resources continue to dwindle, there isn’t one. We are taking the first steps to manage some of the fisheries here. Community support is good which is encouraging, but the problem, globally, is so pervasive it feels almost insurmountable. However, there is good work going on in the world despite the constant negativity we are fed via mass media.