Dynamite Fishing in Burma’s Mergui Archipelago Proves Hard to Stop

By Jacques Maudy-2 15 January 2014

MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO — Dynamite fishing destroys the seabed and sterilizes the sea for at least three years, killing every single fish, mollusk, coral and plant in a radius of 3 nautical miles.

The practice is nonetheless so widely used in southern Burma’s Mergui Archipelago—in at least five recorded locations: Mat Chong Phe, Chalam, the Five Sisters Island group, Lampi, Kyin Gua Chong—that the impact on the local economy is now huge.

The archipelago is a vast group of more than 800 mostly unspoiled islands off the coast of Tenasserim Division. It is home to a shrinking tribe of sea gypsies and gets only a few visitors, mainly scuba divers seeking coral reefs, but plans are underway to develop the tourism infrastructure as Burma welcomes more foreign visitors.

Myint Lwin, chairman of a major Burmese pearl company, who runs farms in six locations in the Mergui, or Myeik, islands, said that he could not breed oysters in his new farm south of Lampi this year because they were being killed by the blasts.

As most of the highly prized Mergui golden pearls are exported, this represents a loss of an estimated US$15 million per year for the country. Burmese golden pearls are currently the most expensive in the world, and reached as much as eight times the floor price at a Hong Kong wholesale auction in March last year.

But the pearl industry is not the only area that suffers from bombing fishing.

The practice is dangerous for recreational divers visiting the area from Thailand and hampers the development of the tourist industry. Hotels and guest houses on Kyin Gua Chong are concerned that the systemic destruction of their marine environment will hurt their tourist operations.

A retired fisherman from Domel Island, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had himself had tried dynamite fishing. He explained that a first bomb of low impact is detonated during the daytime, killing small fish that will then surface belly up. The bigger fish then concentrate in the area to feed on the dead small fry.

A second, much stronger bomb, is detonated at night to kill the big fish. This double whammy effect leaves nature with no chance. The fishermen simply wait for the water to settle, dive and “harvest” their catch.

Small and large operators, Thai and Burmese alike, practice dynamite fishing. Large fishing boats wait nearby while smaller vessels bomb, harvest and bring back the catch. This makes law enforcement by the Burma Navy difficult. The fishing boats are elusive and their crews have become expert at the cat and mouse game of evading authorities. Dynamite is smuggled from Thailand through the Kaw Thung, the southernmost tip of Burma.

Thai operators even employ people of the Salone, or Moken, ethnic group—so-called sea gypsies who live nomadic lives at sea—to dynamite on their behalf. Thus these people are involved in further clouding their tentative future. Once their environment is destroyed, their traditional way of life will be gone.

This week, the Burma Navy sent four vessels to Lampi Island while the Burma Army also sent one vessel in a bid to clamp down on dynamiting. The concern and the efforts of the Navy are genuine, although everyone is frustrated by the results. It might be early days.

The Burma government could greatly help the navy’s job by facilitating the development of the tourist and diving industry in the area. The more stakeholders that are interested in protecting the environment, the more likely the practice will be reported to the authorities.