“…the southern Myeik Archipelago was harvested before it was investigated. It was impoverished before it was explored….. They [coral reefs] won’t recover in the current use context.” Dr. James True, Prince of Songkla University, Thailand.
Ranong, Thailand – More than 20 researchers from IUCN, Thai universities, and international NGOs participated in a survey of the southern Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar from 3-10 February 2014 to record marine habitat in a previously unexplored region of the Andaman Sea.
As noted by expedition leader Dr. James True, an expert in reef resilience, the Myeik Archipelago has been impacted by heavy fishing pressure. This observation was made after researchers conducted a rapid survey of marine wildlife and habitats in order to record baseline data and guide future conservation efforts in the region. The researchers found that although significantly impacted, the archipelago can recover with appropriate management.
The research cruise was organized by IUCN as part of the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project (BOBLME) and surveyed coral reefs in the Myeik Archipelago. This archipelago consists of more than 800 islands off of Myanmar’s southern coast and has emerged as a priority area for marine conservation for its potential role in replenishing coral reefs throughout the Andaman Sea. Despite its importance, no recent surveys exist for most of the archipelago. To fill this gap, IUCN invited 21 Thai and Myanmar researchers as well as representatives from Fauna & Flora International and the World Wildlife Fund to participate in a research cruise. As well as dives, the team used an aerial drone and satellite imagery to map beaches, mud flats, coral reefs, and other habitats.
Initial findings show a large range in coral reef health with some sites significantly impacted due to a combination of coral bleaching events, dynamite (blast) fishing, and sustained fishing pressure. Of these, the impacts of dynamite fishing are the most serious and far-reaching. This, along with other forms of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing are the major threats to the Myeik Archipelago’s reefs. Pervasive use of explosives, poisons, and drift nets and targeting of high-value species like sharks and groupers has devastated the fish populations and destroyed the corals that support marine productivity. The result is once vibrant coral communities replaced by wastelands of algae and sea urchins, and supporting low diversity, low biomass populations of low value fish.
If nothing changes, the future of archipelago’s reefs looks bleak, but given half a chance, these can recover. Coral larvae are still settling on broken reefs and the larvae of key fish species still thrive in the archipelago. Management models that include mosaics of protected areas, partnerships between the tourism industry and local people, and government efforts to crack down on IUU fishing could make a huge difference.
A follow up study is planned for October 2014 and will focus on the biophysical connection between Myanmar and Thai reefs, socio-ecological relationships between local people and resources and the potential role of community-based conservation initiatives.