U YAQOUB says there is no question whether the fish business is in crisis.
A 50-year-old resident of Kyimyindaing township, he employs two regular workers to meet local demand for the important protein source.
He meets with brokers representing fish farms, negotiates the price and finalises orders. When the fish arrive, they are weighed and then paid for.
In turn, U Yaquob sells the fish to local-level fish sellers operating at Yangon’s markets.
“In the past, we only needed to buy the bigger fish, but now we cannot afford to be selective since stocks are depleted,” he said. “Now, we have to buy smaller fish too.”
U Yaqoub is hardly alone in attempting to draw attention to a fading industry.
Fish businesses are aware of significant opportunities both domestically and abroad, but are being held back by a lack of capital and declining stocks, according to Myanmar Fishery Federation general secretary U Win Kyaing.
While domestic and international demand is higher than ever for the protein, industry insiders say natural production has been speedily decreasing. They blame broken fishing rules, improper techniques such as poison or electric shocks, climate change, agricultural runoffs destroying habitats and waste chemicals.
Fixing these problems will be difficult, if not impossible. U Win Kyaing said for instance it is difficult to make sure rural people are following local rules, as their small-scale industries are often their only source of livelihood.
“Though there are several rules and regulations, poor people cannot pay attention to them, as they are struggling. They fish despite any ban,” he said.
Myanmar occupies the 14th spot internationally in terms of total fish stocks, but research conducted in 2013 showed even then that numbers are on the decline.
Department of Fishery statistics for 2012-13 exports, the most recent year available, reached US$378 million, down from $396 million in 2011-12.
Industry statistics produced by different bodies often have wide discrepancies. The Food and Agriculture Organisation pegged 2011 exports at $555 million, the latest year for which it provides update figures.
It also showed 4.5 million tonnes in production for 2012, of which about 885,000 tonnes came from aquaculture and 3.6 million tonnes from capture.
The Myanmar Fishery Federation, meanwhile, pegged 2012-13 exports at $536 million, with officials claiming figures would likely fall below $450 million when the 2013-14 statistics are finalised.
Fishery experts say a downward trend has persisted in the industry, with the last two or three years having been increasingly poor.
“Fish resources from the land and sea are very obviously decreasing. In the future, the trend will be the same,” said U Win Kyaing.
Even maintaining current levels of production is a challenge, given declining stocks and poor infrastructure and technology. The main requirement for the industry is money, to build aquaculture facilities, processing plants and increase exports.
While the amount of fish products available for export is falling, local firms have not enjoyed such advantageous market access as they do now. Sanctions enacted by other countries previously made exports challenging, particularly accessing markets like Europe which pay the most for imports.
Domestic consumption is also on the upswing, driven by better roads and more express delivery services making it easier to move fish around the countryside.
“Within the last five years, I think local consumption has probably doubled. Everywhere in Myanmar you can get all kinds of fresh fish very easily,” said U Win Kyaing. “It’s much different from a few years ago.”
While catches from inland waterways and offshore seas may be declining, the fish breeding industry is picking up some of the slack. Building fish farms is expensive, and industry players consistently request greater access to finance.
Many fish farmers take loans from institutions other than banks, with interest rates of up to 36 percent for one year, he said. Currency fluctuations have compounded difficulties with loans.
Local fish farms often lag behind regional competitors, unable to afford necessary upgrades.
Financing for niche areas in the industry, such as prawn breeding, will also take some time – and, importantly, money – to establish.
The supply shortfall and demand increase has also led to rising prices for consumers. U Win Kyaing said he reckons prices for fish products are an average 50pc higher than half a decade ago.
Myanmar Fishery Federation vice president U Hnin Oo said the lack of a proper banking system is the main reason the fisheries industry has lost momentum.
Treasure Bank, which was formerly branded as Myanmar Livestock and Fisheries Development Bank, is not able to fully capitalise the industry, he said.
“Because of a lack of proper capital – and even though we have preferential market access from the European Union – we still have not been able to properly penetrate the market,” said U Hnin Oo.
“Without capital, we cannot upgrade production, and so, we cannot produce better-quality products.”
U Thaung Htay, 43, from Pazundaung township, is another fish broker.
He sells every type of fish on the market except crabs, and lately prawns as well.
“Prawns have now become really expensive and people are not buying much,” he said. “Demand for herring is quite high, however.”
U Thaung Htay is one of thousands dependant on the industry. Though he is watching business become tough, he says he is not sure why.
“I don’t know about that. I am just a trader,” he said. “I sit here and sell things. That’s all.
Source: Myanmar Times