Myanmar's 2,278 km coastline has a diversity of habitats, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mudflats and mangrove forests that are home to rare and threatened wildlife of global significance. In March 2017 the Myanmar Government endorsed the creation of three Locally Managed Marine Areas, a joint initiative between the Myanmar Department of Fisheries and three fishing communities.
Poverty rates in Myanmar are high and, as a result of the many years of political isolation under the previous military government, education levels are low and there is limited capacity for managing natural resources. The new democratic government has little budget for biodiversity conservation, yet there are many threats to the marine environment, including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, sedimentation as a result of land-use change, pollution, and development of coastal infrastructure. With limited resources, the country is looking to its people to play an active role in protecting and managing marine resources.
In 2012 Fauna & Flora International (FFI) began engaging the Myanmar Government to support sustainable management and conservation of its marine resources. Following the training of Myanmar's first research scuba team, FFI carried out research during 2013–2016 on the coral reefs of the Myeik Archipelago. Although the research found a degraded ecosystem affected by anthropogenic impacts, a number of reefs had a high diversity of corals and fish and up to 92% coral cover. Reefs in the Langann and Thayawthadangyi Island Groups included two Endangered (Acropora roseni and Acropora rudis) and five Vulnerable coral species (Acropora acuminata, Pachyseris rugosa, Pavona venosa, Anomastraea irregularis, Turbinaria mesenterina), the Near Threatened orange-spotted grouper Epinephelus coioides, chevron butterflyfish Chaetodon trifascialis, and bentfin devil ray Mobula thurstoni, the Vulnerable smooth-coated otter Lutrogale perspicillata, and the Critically Endangered hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata.
However, sharks, rays and other large predators were notably uncommon on these and other reefs. FFI therefore initiated socio-economic surveys in five island communities, to examine resource use and threats to livelihoods and to identify ways to address these pressures. The communities are diverse both socially and in terms of livelihoods, with three ethnicities, Karen, Burma and the Moken. Although most are fishers (some are farmers) their methods are varied, with spear fishing, stationary and drift nets, hand-lining and reef gleaning. All those interviewed noted a decline in marine resources and attributed this to an unregulated, open access fishery with excessive commercial trawlers and light boats (boats that use artificial light to attract their catch). Although fishers from these islands fish across the archipelago they were keen to have, at least, an area near their village that is free of trawlers, some of which drive through villagers’ nets. Working alongside the Myanmar Fisheries Department the concept of Locally Managed Marine Areas was proposed. After 2 years and many discussions, the first of three Locally Managed Marine Area notifications was submitted to the Director General of the Fisheries Department in June 2016. Each notification included delimitation of a boundary, location of no-take and seasonal no-take zones, and appropriate rules and regulations. The notifications were approved, and the three areas (Langann, Don Pale Aw and Lin Lon/Parawa Locally Managed Marine Areas) were gazetted on 31 March 2017. These are the first such notifications designed specifically for marine co-managed fisheries in Myanmar.
Each Area is managed by a 12–15 member committee, including a mix of ethnicities, fisher types and sexes. Management plans for each site have been submitted to the Fisheries Department for approval, and FFI has provided a patrol boat to each Area, to help enforce regulations in collaboration with Fisheries Department officers. Over the past year FFI has also provided these communities with small grants that allow local people to manage livelihood projects. These have included the establishment of two crab banks for blue-swimmer crabs, illegal fishing net exchange, pig rearing and agroforestry.
The establishment of the Locally Managed Marine Areas has engendered considerable interest amongst fishing communities in the Myeik Archipelago, with 10 more communities coming forward to indicate their enthusiasm for the idea. The Fisheries Department and the Tanintharyi State Regional Government have also taken an interest in this approach, as it is a way to involve communities in decision making and managing their own resources, and a step towards sustainable fisheries management for the country.