GGGI PROJECT: Myanmar Ocean Project - Ghost Gear Removal in the Myeik Archipelago

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Project Background

To address the challenge of ghost fishing gear in Myanmar, we will initiate a ghost gear removal pilot effort - the first of its kind in Myanmar. The project, funded by the National Geographic Society and World Animal Protection, will focus specifically on the Myeik Archipelago, one of the most untouched island groups in the world. Though the islands of the archipelago are largely untouched by humans, ghost nets from artisanal fisheries have been found beneath the surface, threatening key species such as manta rays, and harming the marine ecosystem.

Ms. Thanda Ko Gyi, a Burmese national and highly skilled SCUBA diver, and the first person in Myanmar to both raise the alarm about lost fishing gear and take the initiative to remove it, will serve as Field Manager for the project.

Project Objectives

  • conduct systematic underwater surveys for lost gear in order to conduct a preliminary quantitative assessment of the scope of the problem;

  • draft a policies and procedures manual, utilizing previously developed manuals and best practices recommendations from the GGGI;

  • obtain any necessary in-country permissions for underwater work;

  • identify and train highly skilled and experienced SCUBA divers to engage in safe and effective gear recovery, utilizing established methods;

  • use the ghost gear reporting application developed by the GGGI Build Evidence working group to collect and collate data on reported, observed and/or recovered gear;

  • conduct outreach to local fishing communities, SCUBA diving groups, tourism operators and media outlets to raise awareness about the project; and

  • ultimately recover tons of derelict fishing gear from the Myeik Archipelago.

Methods for recovering lost, abandoned and discarded gear have been well worked out by groups engaged in similar efforts in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, lost gear is located through reports from fishermen, divers, researchers or other ocean users in and on the water, or by sonar surveys of areas where gear is known to be lost. Gear is recovered by SCUBA divers utilizing tanks or surface-supplied air, who use cutting instrument and float bags to lift retrieved gear to the ocean surface where it is winched on board for disposal or recycling. Similar methodologies drawing on GGGI recommended best practices will be used here.

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Impacts of Ghost Gear on Myeik Archipelago and Expected Project Outcomes

Lost, abandoned and discarded commercial and artisanal fishing gear is emerging as a critical threat to Myanmar’s coastal ocean, where it impacts both ecologically and economically important living marine resources, including threatened and endangered species like dugong, turtles, manta rays, and corals, and poses a very real threat to Myanmar’s budding ocean-based tourism industry.

Lost gear threatens the integrity and functioning of marine ecosystems. It continues to catch harvestable species, thereby impacting artisanal fishers; it drowns marine mammals, turtles, and birds, and kills sharks, rays, and fish. As well, lost fishing gear smothers seafloor and reef habitats, killing coral and altering local biodiversity. Furthermore, lost fishing gear impacts people, especially two key constituencies in southern Myanmar: artisanal fishermen and SCUBA divers.

This project will result in the collection of data on the quantity, type and location of ghost fishing gear in a part of the world for which these data are currently totally lacking. It would provide evidence (e.g. data, images, maps) for the impact that ghost fishing gear has on keystone species for this coral reef ecosystem, as well as on impacts to the corals themselves.

Furthermore, as a pilot effort, the project will test the application of standard best practices for ghost gear recovery and adapt as necessary to optimize for implementation in Myanmar. It will also allow us to investigate opportunities for gear disposal and recycling, and suggest ways in which artisanal fishermen in the area might change how they deploy their gear to minimize the risk that gear becomes lost. Ultimately, the project will remove ghost gear from Myanmar’s coastal ocean, thereby reducing the threat that ghost gear poses to marine life and habitats.

We completed phase one of the scoping and removal work for the GGGI Myanmar Project in March, 2019. Thanda Ko Gyi of the Myanmar Ocean Project and her team performed three separate trips in February and March 2019 to three key sites: Langann Island, High Rock and Lampi Island.

In Langann, the lost net problem is massive. The team found a plethora of nets on the sea floor and coral reefs in the area, mostly monofilament gillnet. As this is an area of high artisanal fishing activity and a popular place for vessels to come to get supplies, ice and water, it was expected that the concentration would be high compared to other areas. However, nothing prepared the team for the extent of what they found. The team removed 527 kg over 4 days of dives, but there is still a vast amount of lost net to be recovered. Fortunately, local artisanal fishers on the island were engaged in the project and eager to help, so there’s hope for this area of incredible biodiversity.

High Rock is an area with numerous rock pinnacles that is popular with dive tour operators. The team focused on one particular spire where they found at least four separate layers of net covering the rock, indicating at least 4 distinct major snag events. This time the net appeared to be purse seine net rather than gillnets. The strong currents and deep water in the area hindered removal efforts somewhat, but the team managed to recover 348 kg of net from the spire over nine dives across two days. However, there remains a significant amount of net to be removed.

The area around Lampi Island was actually remarkably free from nets, most likely due to the fact that the area has been designated as a national park since 1995. Although this was certainly encouraging, once the team left the marine park boundaries, there was a correspondingly high concentration of lost gillnets and removed 139 kg over a day and a half of diving.

Although there is certainly a major problem with lost and abandoned fishing gear in the Myeik Archipelago, it’s encouraging that local artisanal fishers are being educated on this issue by our team and are generally keen to help. As this problem occurs for the most part beneath the surface of the water, most fishers were unaware of the extent of the impacts of lost gear on the local species and their own livelihoods, and were eager to engage our team and find ways to help mitigate the problem.

GGGI ProjectJoel Baziuk