Myanmar’s undersea menace

While scuba-diving in the Mergui Archipelago, amateur diver Ma Thandar Ko Gyi was annoyed to find discarded fishing nets instead of just coral reefs and fishes.

However, when she went diving at Lampi island, she felt relieved to find no discarded nets and fishing gear underwater. The difference is that Lampi has been designated as a marine national park since 1996.

“When I dived in Lampi, I felt like I was on holiday,” said Ma Thandar Ko Gyi, founder of the Myanmar Ocean Project.

She is an experienced diver who has been leisure diving since studying in Europe. After working as a volunteer for an international fish-survey team, and diving in Thailand and the Philippines, she was eager to see the underwater beauties of her own country.

She travelled to dive sites in the Mergui Archipelago, where contrary to expectations, she was shocked to see coral reefs covered in fishing nets that had trapped and killed small fish.

“I was inconsolable,” she said.

Abandoned fishing nets and gear are a major problem for Myanmar, marine conservation experts said, but not many people are interested in the problem.

Ma Thandar Ko Gyi’s first diving trip to the archipelago was memorable because she saw sharks. “If the sea is healthy, sharks can be found. If there are no sharks, it is assumed the sea is unhealthy,” she said.

However, when she returned to dive near Kawthoung in Tanintharyi Region one month later, she saw about 12 bamboo sharks tangled in an abandoned fishing net, some of them already dead but some of them still struggling to escape. She removed the tangled net from those that were still alive and freed them, but they died, weakened by their struggle.

“I knew this was an area that many sharks inhabited. I had boasted that I would take photos, but I found the whole area littered with nets,” she said.

A threat to marine life

These nets and gear are carelessly disposed of or lost by fishing trawlers. They include ropes, floats, and fish traps.

This jetsam is destroying Myanmar’s coral reefs and killing marine life. Worldwide, it is a huge economic problem, as the demand for seafood and the number of fishing boats increase.

“When I was young, we could only eat seafood in coastal areas, but today, we can eat it anywhere,” she said.

About 6.4 million tonnes of fishing nets are discarded in the ocean yearly, killing hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles, just to name a few species, according to the World Animals Protection group.

Six sea turtle species are dying after getting caught in the nets and being unable to surface for air. Even sharks and rays are not exempt, Ma Thandar Ko Gyi said.

“When we dive down and look under the sea, many fishes are caught in these ghost nets on coral reefs,” said U Zaw Lun, an oceanographer with the International Wildlife and Plant Conservation Organisation.

In the past, trawlers used nets made of cotton, which easily decayed, but today, they only use nylon nets. “Nylon nets will not decay for hundreds or thousands of years,” he said.

Myanmar Ocean Project carried out a survey of discarded nets in 22 areas of the Mergui Archipelago from February to March. The four-member team cleared 1014 kilograms of nets during the study and plans to make another survey from mid-October to the end of the year.

They found that the most severely affected areas were near hotels and tourist attractions.

“Research has found that fishing nets account for 46 percent of plastic waste in the sea,” Ma Thandar Ko Gyi said.

Raising public awareness

Besides studying the water and beaches, the Myanmar Ocean Project tries to educate local people on the safe disposal of fishing nets. It is not easy to conserve the beauty of Myanmar’s waters, but it can be done through the cooperation of the public and the government.

“Nothing can be done without the regional government. There is no short-term solution. Fishes will keep getting trapped and dying as long as the discarded nets are down there, so we need to raise the living standard of local people,” she said.

“I have been to some places where I found only one net before, but that place has totally changed in the past year and a half. There are more discarded fishing nets and the coral reef is being destroyed,” she said.

The government has specified the types of fishing nets that can be used, and officials inspect the nets at sea, said U Myint Zin Htoo, deputy director general of the Department of Fisheries.

“But we have no way of knowing whether fishing trawlers change the nets when they are out at sea. We conduct inspections as much as we can. We prohibit the disposal of fishing nets, but they need to follow the rules. We plan to provide training for fishery workers,” he said.

It will be a tough job to clean up the discarded fishing nets, but it can be done if fishing trawlers dispose of their unwanted nets in specified places, Ma Thandar Ko Gyi said.

“We shouldn’t keep consuming our marine resources as if they can never be used up. We need to conserve them,” she said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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