Rakhine shrimp farmers chase European markets

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Improved market access leads to Rakhine shrimp farm resurgence though declining yields remain a concern

Former shrimp farmers in Rakhine State are restarting long-dormant businesses following encouraging rule changes in the European Union, though many claim yields have diminished because of environment degradation and illegal fishing.

The EU announced improved market access for Myanmar fishery exports in June through its Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), fuelling resurgence in the industry, shrimp farmers say.

U Kyaw Aye, a former shrimp farm owner at Sittwe in Rakhine State, said some are already starting to prepare their farms for next year.

“I used to have nearly 150 acres of shrimp farms,” he said. “I stopped all of them maybe eight years ago, because we were not catching a lot of shrimp. When production was down, we faced difficulties continuing.”

Sanctions against the country, he said, forced many to give up their farms over the last decade.

“Other countries held sanctions against the Myanmar economy for a long time, so Myanmar exporters lost out on market access. When exporters lost the market they could not buy the raw products from the farmers. This was the one of factors involved in the loss of our businesses.”

The country’s recent political reform led to the removal of EU sanctions in April and the GSP announcement in June, creating opportunities which have many shrimp farmers hoping to start fresh. But they are also finding the economy is not the only landscape that is changing, with recent manmade environmental impacts making traditional techniques unworkable.

Farmers in Rakhine State raise shrimp by making pools into which tides carry breeding shrimp every six months. This method keeps costs low, since the shrimp do not need feeding.

But yields from these traditional methods are declining rapidly, according to U Maung Nyein, who runs 40 acres of shrimp farms in Amyint Kyunn village in Sittwe township.

Some 15 years ago farmers could catch about 30 viss (48kg or 108 pounds) per acre this way, but over the past eight years or so yields have dropped to about 5 viss per acre, a level he says is financially unviable for farmers.

Ko Aung Aung Naing, coalition facilitator for Pyoe Pin’s Fisheries Project, organised by the Department for International Development (DFID), said several factors have contributed to the depletion of shrimp along Rakhine State’s coast.

“It is not only that sea resources are down. Mangrove depletion is also causing the drop in shrimp,” he said, adding widespread use of improved nets by unlicensed fishermen contributed to the depletion.

According to U San Kyaw Hla, vice chairman of the Sittwe Fisheries Federation, 124 boats are licensed by the Department of Fisheries to operate off-shore in Rakhine State, though he said up to 200 may be operating without licenses.

U Awin, a former shrimp farmer in Amyint Kyunn village in Sittwe township, said that while mangrove depletion removes shrimps’ natural breeding ground, those that do breed are often caught by these boats before they are able to make their way into the pools.

All these reasons leave farmers no longer able to depend on nature to provide their farms with shrimp, U Maung Nyein said. Instead, farmers need to buy young shrimp to get their farms started.

“When we started shrimp farming over ten years ago, we didn’t need to use the small shrimp because we got all our shrimp from the sea,” U Maung Nyein said. “We have to change our farming methods, like using better technology or small shrimp.”

He added, however, that many will find the start-up costs of buying small shrimp prohibitively high.

“I have to pay K1.2 million for 200,000 small shrimp. That is for 40 acres. Some farmers cannot afford that amount of money because their business was down for so long.”

U Maung Nyein called on the Department of Fisheries to offer specific loans and technical support to farmers looking to get back into the shrimp industry.

But while U Maung Nyein never stopped farming even during the lean years and was recently rewarded when the price of shrimp increased rapidly in 2013 to K5000 per viss, U Awin and many others gave up on the industry entirely.

“At the former production rate we could live easily. When production fell, we decided to stop our business because we had to find other work,” U Awin said.

U Awin added farmers who borrowed from the government in the past will have difficulty doing so now because they will not be able to show evidence of a functioning business. But he said it will not stop him from trying.

“We can’t borrow money from the government,” he said,“but we hope to get assistance from them.”

Source: Myanmar Times