Myanmar labourers are already at work, hauling baskets laden with fish and bargaining over prices, before the sun is up. They work at the Ranong fish markets, the centre of southern Myanmar’s fishery trade. It is where heavily laden Myanmar fishing boats come to sell their catch, where humming processing factories prepare fish for export, and where international buyers come to make deals, putting fish on the world’s table.
The Thai city of Ranong continues to dominate fishing in Tanintharyi Region. Locals are eyeing the alternatives, but for many there are few options just yetThe Thai city of Ranong continues to dominate fishing in Tanintharyi Region. Locals are eyeing the alternatives, but for many there are few options just yet
Ranong has emerged as the focal point for Myanmar’s fishers, particularly those fishing off Tanintharyi’s long coast in the south. Yet despite the city’s importance to Myanmar fisheries, it is not in the country – it is in Thailand, just across the Kra Buri river from Tanintharyi Region’s southern tip.
Still, the city has a distinctly Myanmar air, with many people speaking two languages and a steady flow of visitors coming from the Myanmar city of Kawthaung, a short 4 kilometre (2.5 mile) boat ride away. The signs are in both languages, and most of the Ranong labourers wake up before 4am every day to make sure the market is ready.
The draw is obvious for Myanmar people – Ma Theingi, one of the labourers, said she has been working the local markets for seven years. “Myanmar workers do the jobs that Thai workers won’t do, but it is okay for me,” she said, while taking a break from haggling with buyers. “I am happy here.”
Many of the labourers are Myanmar. Ma Theingi said she makes 4000 baht (US$112) a month, with tips of up to 500 baht a day when she performs well and also a place to stay, while working in the Ranong markets. She claims it is a much larger amount that what she would hope for back in Tanintharyi.
Not all Myanmar workers are as fortunate as Ma Theingi: Many labouring in the Thai fishing industry face much more difficult prospects. Yet for Ma Theingi, she reckons her lot is not too bad.
She works at the official market, which is next to the main landing point for boats carting over visitors. At the market, catches are brought ashore and sorted into piles and then sold at a set price – though this is hardly the only way fish is sold in Ranong. West of the official market are a string of privately-owned warehouses, which prefer an auction system for lots of fish, while others have privately contracted arrangements.
The Ranong markets serve to link foreign buyers with Myanmar fishers. It is the middle point between the thousands of Myanmar ships at sea and those from places as diverse as Singapore and Scotland who want to buy large quantities of fish.
Furthermore, Tanintharyi Region fishers have few other options. Ranong has the facilities and connections to international buyers that much of Myanmar, particularly in Tanintharyi, lacks.
The over-reliance is frustrating for many Myanmar fishers. While they acknowledge few other close-by places have the facilities that Ranong has, they have few other places to turn when prices tumble.
“The market hasn’t been doing well this year,” said one trader at a private market. “Big buyers from Singapore haven’t been buying large volumes.”
For instance, last year 1 kilogram of prawn would sell for 200 baht, but now is about 140 baht. Some fishers are starting to get fed up.
Tha Pot Seik villagers weigh their choices
The boats land in the hot sun at Tha Pot Seik village after weeks at sea. Workers jump into the water and haul their catch to the shore, where the fish, prawn and rays are quickly packed in boxes with ice, then left waiting on land for transportation to market.
Much of the catch heads usually heads south to the processing factories in Ranong, where the fish is prepared for export to the wider world. Now, though, frustrated by low prices, the Tha Pot Seik villagers are aiming in a new direction.
The road from Yangon to Dawei, which passes near Tha Pot Seik, currently takes only about 24 hours, which is a short-enough distance to keep the catch from spoiling. Villagers said that most of the catch now heads north to markets in Mawlamyine and Yangon.
U Kyaw Htike, BHK fish trader at Tha Pot Seik, said the improved road link is an advantage for Dawei, as the rival centres of Myeik or Kawthaung do not have such strong roads.
Another new tool in the village is telecoms, with new MPT service in the town allowing more consistent calls and better quality.
“Now we can call ahead and fix the price, if we don’t like the first price we’re offered in Yangon or Mawlamyine,” he said. “We have telecoms in our village now, so trading is much better than when we could only go to Ranong.”
Demand for the fishery products has been strong, and Tha Pok Seik village has a boomtown feel to it. Locals are also hopeful that the nearby Dawei special economic zone will eventually including processing and canning options, giving them another, closer option.
Kawthaung fishers stuck with Ranong
While Dawei fishers have relatively few choices for potential markets, fishers in the other major Tanintharyi fishing centres of Myeik and Kawthaung have even fewer.
In Kawthaung, the road link north to Yangon is much worse, and the trade is oriented to Ranong, just across the river.
“We really just have the Ranong markets, because we have no wholesale fish market until now in the region,” said U Than Zaw Win, owner of Myanmar Gold Star Company, which fishes out of Kawthaung.
“We don’t have cold storage factories and fish often becomes rotten. We can’t store our produce for long; we must sell it immediately,” he said. “There is a problem when prices are low – we have no choice, we have to sell.”
Fishing entrepreneurs say they look for alternatives, but so far have come up short.
“Sometimes Thai people show their tricks, and then we lose. But we don’t mind because they’re our only buyers,” said U Thein Naing Soe, owner of Wai Hin Moe company in Kawthaung.
U Myint Naing, head official at Kawthaung Fishery Department, said the Thai government had developed a fishery management plan 50 years ago and is now reaping the rewards.
The success of the market has enabled Thai businesspeople to move from simply catching fish, to playing a role as the region’s middleman.
“They have prepared ahead for their fishery sector looking at their neighbours’ situations. Now, they don’t have many ways to catch fishes but they have big trading. But our country doesn’t have good fishery management, nor good policy. That’s why we are behind the time and followers of the Thais,” he said.
Local fishers would like to see a wholesale fish market in Kawthaung in Myanmar territory, instead of in Thailand. They reckon a local market would go a long way to improving the local economy – as well as make them richer.
Despite discussions, no wholesale market has yet come to be.
U Min Lwin, who is also chair of the Tanintharyi Region Myanmar Fishery Federation chapter, said the association has been pushing for an economic zone including a wholesale fish market in Kawthaung.
He said the market will make them richer, and should also include nearby cold storage, canning factories and fish power factories to allow direct international shipment of the local catch. With the ability to ship longer distances, more markets would be open to exports, allowing businesspeople to look for higher prices.
Some entrepreneurs had opened Kawthaung factories in the past, but had been forced to close. The biggest problem is electricity. Fish processing factories require huge amounts of electricity, which is pricey in Kawthaung.
U Thein Naing Oo said that the previous factories had used diesel generators, which were expensive to run. Even with regular supply from the grid, prices are still K350 per unit, about 10 times the cost in Yangon.
A few companies had tried their hand at cold storage and processing in Kawthaung, but the owners had shuttered all of them by 2010, and never returned.
Finding fewer fish
Tough markets are taking their toll on fishers, but another concern looming large is a lack of fish.
While the Myanmar Fishery Federation reckons in some instances Myanmar’s seawater fish stock has declined by up to 80 percent, Tanintharyi’s levels are down only 30pc compared to about ten years ago.
“We haven’t lost as much as other regions because Tanintharyi has a long ocean-front with many islands, which are helpful for young fish,” said U Myint Naing, from the Fishery Department.
“But if people do not change course, this is likely to decline in the future.”
U Soe Aung is a Tha Pot Seik-based fisherman. He says his catch has been in decline over the last five years, blaming increasing competition further offshore from large trawlers and ships using drift nets, long lines, squid cast nets and fish traps.
Myanmar vessels smaller than 30 feet with engine power of less than 12 horsepower are limited to inland fishing within 10 miles of the shore, while larger vessels are allowed to travel beyond the limit.
Fish have traditionally been one of Myanmar’s most successful exports. In 2014-15, it exported nearly US$500 million worth of fish from its farms and seas, part of the $29 billion in total exports reported by the Ministry of Commerce that year.
Yet the overall trend, particularly for caught fish rather than farmed fish, is one of decline. Official exports in the previous fiscal year were at their lowest in six years, and experts say the catch is continuing to drop this year.
Raising more value from ocean fish may not simply mean increasing volumes, but diversifying choices to help connect fishers with more markets around the world. For now, though, there is Ranong.
Source: Myanmar Times