Myanmar has taken its first major step towards developing a sustainable aquaculture industry that will meet domestic dietary needs and support the country’s fishery exports business at a time when wild fish stocks are declining rapidly.
“The fisheries sector is one of the most important for our ministry, contributing to the protein needs of our people as well as our nation’s food security,” Dr Aung Thu, Union minister of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation (MoALI), said in Nay Pyi Taw last week.
He added that while Myanmar now exports fishery products to 40 foreign markets, the country’s present production capacity is insufficient for it to continue exporting at those levels. “As such, developing a local aquaculture industry with assistance from international organisations is essential,” he said.
In line with this initiative, the Department of Fisheries (DoF) under MoALI on February 1 launched the Myanmar Sustainable Aquaculture Programme (MYSAP), which kicked off with €22.5 million (K36.7 billion) in funding from the EU and German government.
MYSAP will focus on helping to develop aquaculture businesses in the inland fish-deficient Sagaing and Shan states as well as the coastal states of Ayeyarwady and Rakhine over the next 5 years. Ayeyarwady houses around 26 percent of Myanmar’s poor, while half the population of Rakhine lives in poverty despite the state having the highest potential for aquaculture.
Officials estimate the programme will directly benefit 250,000 fish farmers and also give some 25,000 rice farmers the option to improve their income by diversifying into aquaculture. It will also enable children to gain access to proteins that help prevent malnutrition.
The launch of MYSAP also served as needed impetus for drafting a National Aquaculture Development Plan (NADP) setting out long term, national objectives to foster the future development of the sector. In fact, the first NADP dialogue, during which members from the government, civil society and the private sector brainstormed over issues such as funding, policy support and education, also took place on Feb 1.
Currently, around 65pc of Myanmar’s fishery production is derived from the wild. That is depleting fast as a result of overfishing and pollution. Preliminary data from a 2013 survey conducted with support from Norway suggested that fish abundance in some Myanmar coastal areas could be as low as 10 percent of what it was 40 years ago. Meanwhile, contributions from fish farms have also stagnated since Cyclone Nargis hit the country’s coast in 2008, destroying up to 75pc of Myanmar livestock, according to the United Nations.
Nevertheless, Myanmar still enjoys a 3,000-mile coastline and several large estuarine delta systems, giving rise to 120,000 acres of land area suitable for aquaculture cultivation, according to the DoF. “If small fish farmers as well as rice farmers start converting more of this land into fish ponds and farming their own fish, they can take care of their own protein needs. To generate household income, they can sell excess fish to other locals and also export to neighbouring countries,” U Zaw Oo, executive director at the Centre for Economic and Social Development (CESD), told The Myanmar Times.
The first step in achieving that goal is ensuring the NADP is well supported by the government and its international partners to ensure its continuity. “We understand that there is a strong need for a proper aquaculture development plan in Myanmar,” DoF Director General U Khin Maung Maw said in a statement. “Therefore, the DoF is facilitating the process of drafting an NADP that is in line with Myanmar’s National Economic Policy, announced in 2016.”
At the MYSAP launch, Kristian Schmidt, EU ambassador to Myanmar, said that “by helping to develop the farmed fish business, we hope some of the poorest people will have better access to nutrition and wild fish supplies will stop decreasing, as overfishing is a big problem and risk to the future generations.”
Now, harder tasks are at hand, the most formidable of which is restructuring existing policies pertaining to the use of land for aquaculture. During the NADP dialogues, DoF officials said the penalty for illegal use of land for fish ponds is currently K1 million per acre. Of the 120,000 acres of land suitable for aquaculture, only half has been approved.
To obtain the necessary approvals, farmers must send applications to the DoF, as well as the Department of Agriculture and Department of Agriculture Land Management & Statistics. One of the issues is that regional and state authorities prioritise the use of land for rice cultivation even though some areas are waterlogged and more suited for fish farming. In fact, land occupied by fish farms currently represents just 2pc of the total area earmarked for agriculture.
The good news though, is all 3 departments involved in the approval process are under MoALI and do not involve other ministries, so the approval process will be simpler to expedite. Meanwhile, officials said the DoF is now trying to obtain Parliamentary approval to convert larger swathes of land into fish farms. They agreed new policies encouraging the development of aquaculture must be made at the “national level.”
The inability to access capital is also a major issue for the sector. Currently, funding for the aquaculture sector is provided by state-owned Myanmar Agriculture Development Bank (MADB) and the Myanmar Economic Bank (MEB). However, only large farms with official permission to use the land for aquaculture are eligible to apply for loans. In addition, some loans are also restricted to a certain percentage of total capital expenditure. For example, loans to purchase fish feed are restricted to just 10pc of the total cost.
To that end, MADB officials urged private banks and microfinance institutions to get involved in lending to small-scale farmers, saying a “parallel strategy to provide financial assistance to smaller businesses is needed.”
According to U Zaw Oo, farmers will need an initial investment of $1000-$2,000 to start a small-scale fish farm, which is 10 times more costly than sowing paddy and much riskier for the poor. “Because of the level of investments involved, farmers must be prepared to commercially scale their businesses to make things worthwhile,” he said.
To bridge the barriers to entry, a higher level of cooperation with the private sector through public-private partnerships (PPP) is necessary. “Under a PPP, the DoF can shoulder the risks of developing hatcheries because they own the land and have more knowledge on the species,” U Zaw Oo said.
“The government can focus on hatchery investment and development, sell the hatchlings at a low cost to small private farms and leave them to run their own businesses. This will solve the current market gridlock where farmers are unwilling to bear the risk of developing their own hatcheries, as they have no protection against the risk of disease or natural disasters.”
Dr Kyaw Tun Myint, vice president of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation, told The Myanmar Times that the country should have a more strategic plan in place to achieve export success. Myanmar currently exports around 500 million tonnes of seafood to Thailand, Bangladesh and the Middle East, according to estimates provided by Dr Kyaw Tun Myint. At those levels, exports are down by 20pc compared to previous years and 10 times less than Vietnam and Thailand.
“To generate economic growth through exports, Myanmar must target higher value species which are in demand in the US and Europe. For example, Vietnam farms catfish for the US and Thailand exports shrimp to Europe,” he said.
“In Myanmar, we are now farming very low-price species like the fresh- water rohu for exports because most farmers have no support and funds to diversify into other higher value species. To break into the developed markets, we need to start farming higher quality, fresh seafood.”
The way U Kyaw Tun Myint sees it, Myanmar has the right resources to develop a strong shrimp farming business. “Under MYSAP, the Rakhine and Ayeyarwady coastlines can be used to farm and produce white Vietnamese shrimp for export purposes. There are already a number of private farms in the south which produce 20 tonnes of these shrimp per hectare. The problem is they are unable to expand,” he said.
The government has a big part to play in facilitating successful exports, too. With cheap illegal seafood supplies coming in daily from Thailand, Dr Kyaw Tun Myint warned that locals have little incentive to invest in cultivating better species. “Buying from illegal fishermen is cheap, whereas cultivation and exports are costly and risky,” he said. “For aquaculture to be sustainable, illegal trading has to stop.”
The other big concern for local traders is the lack of infrastructure. Cross border exports for example, are now getting costlier due the lack of cold storage facilities in Myanmar. “When we export to Thailand, we have to stay at the Dawei border because there are no suitable warehouses in Myanmar, so we are forced to use Thai facilities. As such, locals end up incurring lots of costs like taxes and storage fees,” said Dr Kyaw Tun Myint. “Without facilities in Myanmar, we can’t send supplies back either.”
Better training and education will eventually also pave the way for higher value and more sustainable exports. “For exports, local farmers must be even more careful to avoid the use of pesticides and ensure the use of quality, non-genetically modified fish feed. Realistically speaking, if we want to sell our fisheries products overseas to higher-end markets, education and awareness needs to start from the ground,” U Zaw Oo said.
University officials agreed that better education is needed before farmers are convinced of the long term commercial benefits of aquaculture. They stressed the need to establish specialised tertiary degrees in aquaculture and food security in local universities and called for more generous government grants to conduct research in the field.
“Even though DoF is technically competent, the binding constraints in achieving a sustainable NADP are in other areas such as land, finance and education. For this to work, the DoF will need a lot of help from the other ministries and departments,” said U Zaw Oo.