JATETAW VILLAGE, Arakan State — On a recent afternoon, the beach at Jatetaw village was bustling with fishermen hauling their boats ashore and offloading the catch. Local women carried the fish off in bamboo baskets and laid them out to dry in the sun, after which they would be salted for storage.
A pungent smell emitted from fish waste strewn about the area filled the air.
One of the women, Htoo Mya San, said the work was tough and unpleasant. “I have so many calluses on my shoulders as I have carried fish baskets for years,” the 23-year-old said. “I hope to go back home someday.”
Like most workers, she came from an impoverished area in the north of the state to Thandwe township, southern Arakan State, which is a major fishing area with some 2,000 boats and 7,000 fishermen, according to township officials.
The industry sometimes draws workers from poor communities by offering free housing and an advance on salaries to cover bus tickets to the area.
Htoo Mya San left a village in Kyauktaw township, while Hla Myint Thein said she came from Ywahaung village, Ponnagyun township, two months ago.
“I can have daily work here, but there were no regular jobs at my home village,” said Hla Myint Thein, 45, adding that she was so poor that she had to sell her earrings to afford the bus ticket south.
Though Jajetaw’s fishing business offers some jobs, the work is basic, involving simple wooden boats and manual work, and offers little profit, those working here said. Operations are small, varying from one boat operated by three fishermen, to a few boats owned by a businessman who may employ about two dozen men and a few women.
Men employed to fish said they were paid around 120,000 kyats (about US$100) per month and women working ashore make around 100,000 kyats. The smallest operations are done by subsistence fishermen, who feed their families with the fish and sell the rest.
Falling catch, rising debts
Workers are often landless and say they are struggling to get by on their low incomes, which can also vary if the catch has been bad. Subsistence fishermen live hand to mouth and — like everyone in the area — said fishing has suffered from a decline in fish stocks for many years.
“We have to go fishing ever farther away, as the fish catch is declining near the coast,” said Tin Maung Hlaing, a local fisherman who has been taking his small boat out to sea for 28 years.
Like many workers and subsistence fishermen here, Tin Maung Hlaing said the falling income from fishing had forced him to borrow money.
“I remain deep in debt,” he said, adding that he needed better equipment to increase his catch and income but could not afford to purchase it. “I have no sufficient fishing gear, so I have to use a heavy fishing net by hand. I’m now suffering from backache,” he said.
Naing Kwae Aye, an Arakan State legislature MP for the National League for Democracy from Thandwe township’s constituency No. 2, said struggling coastal communities in the state have no access to credit and many fishermen fall victim to loan sharks.
“Some fishermen pawn their property to buy fishing gear. If they do not have property they have to borrow money at a 20 percent interest rate per month, then they get trapped in a debt cycle,” he said.
An industry in decline
Fishing and aquaculture are traditionally an important source of income in Arakan State, one of Burma’s poorest regions that suffers from low agricultural yields, isolation, environmental degradation and communal conflict in the north. A 2014 Oxfam report on Arakan’s fisheries estimated that 43 percent of the population gain income from fishing, or a combination of fishing and farming.
While Burmese and international trawlers operate off the coast, most local communities rely on medium to small-scale fishing operations. The local fishing sector has been beset by a number of problems, most importantly a dramatic decline in catch and a lack of storage technology and transport options to allow its produce to be sold in Burma’s cities or in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Oxfam report cited a study by the Department of Fisheries and Norwegian researchers that estimates a decline of fisheries in Arakan State of about 65 percent in the last 30 years, though other estimates are even higher.
“The decline of Rakhine [Arakan] fisheries finds its roots in overfishing, lack of enforcement of fishery law and use of illegal fishing gear,” the report said. “Local fishermen usually blame large trawlers, national and international, as well as baby trawlers operated by local medium-scale fishermen.”
The number cold storage facilities have also decreased in recent years due to the high cost of electricity, while there has been no improvement in road connections to Rangoon. As a result, most of the catch is sold locally at relatively low prices, according to a research paper on small-scale fishermen in Arakan State published in the Journal of Burmese Scholarship last August.
“[T]here is little prospect for the revitalisation of cold storage due to the decline in fishery productions and the outflow of workers from the fishing industry to Yangon [Rangoon] and neighbouring countries,” the paper authored by Saw Eh Htoo added.
Government and NGO help
Myint Thein, an officer at Thandwe district’s Fisheries Department, acknowledged the problems, saying shrimp farming had been particularly hard-hit. “The salt water shrimp industry in Thandwe district has declined in recent years after it has lost its market, although it was thriving 10 years ago.”
Overfishing through illegal methods, sometimes involving explosives, and the catching of fingerlings was threatening fish stocks, he said, adding that authorities were trying to educate fishermen on these problems and cracking down on illegal fishing.
“We are holding public talks in villages in this area to address the decline of fish breeding. … Local fishermen said the size of fish is becoming smaller,” he said, adding that climate change and environmental degradation were also affecting stocks.
Tin Maung Hlaing, the subsistence fisherman, said illegal fishing was common. “Some fishermen are using narrow sieve nets, they catch even tiny fishes,” he said.
Myint Thein said the government had allocated $70,000 for a micro loans program called the Emerald Project for three fishing villages in Thandwe district, including Jajetaw. It plans to provide loans of around $220 at between 0.5 to 1.5 percent annual interest to help fishermen expand their operations.
Kyar Oo, the wife of a small fisherman in Jajetaw, said she knew of the program but that only fishermen who can show they own a boat, a house or a fishing licence are eligible, adding that many poor fishermen lacked property.
“The Fisheries Department has developed a programme, the Emerald Project, to reduce the financial problems of fishermen. But it is not effective to solve our problems,” she said.
International aid NGOs have set up projects in recent years to support impoverished Arakan State communities and address agriculture, fishing and environmental challenges.
Myint Thein said his department was working with NGOs to conduct a survey to determine how to help fishermen and restore fishing stocks, adding that he believed the local fishery industry needs capital and technology so it can set up a production chain that reaches markets outside of Arakan State.
“Only financial support cannot address their problems. They need to understand modern technologies in this industry to create better products,” he said.
This story was originally published by Myanmar Now.