Pristine coral reefs and previously unknown species of sea life have been discovered around the Myeik Archipelago, prompting renewed calls for the creation of Myanmar’s first coral protection zone.
A team of scientists from Flora and Fauna International (FFI), working alongside internationally renowned marine experts, recorded hundreds of species around the 800-island archipelago, including at least four new forms of coral, as well as several invertebrates and fish.
They also found that much of the region was less damaged by blast-fishing and illegal trawling than predicted.
“These are virgin areas that no-one has surveyed before,” said U Zau Lunn, a marine coordinator with FFI. “There are many new species.”
Other notable discoveries included barramundi cod, ornate ghost pipe fish and species of coral present in Africa and East Asia that have never been recorded in Myanmar waters before.
FFI is now in talks with the government and local community representatives about how best to protect the area, which is also on a list of proposed World Heritage Sites.
"There are no protected areas of coral in Myanmar. That's our big mission,” said Frank Momberg, FFI program director for Myanmar.
“We would aim to get the [marine] park gazetted before the next election," he added.
Myanmar currently has the lowest rate of marine protected areas is Southeast Asia, according to FFI, and is facing international pressure to step up their ocean conservation efforts. But enforcement of rules is likely to be more of a challenge than establishing marine parks, conservationists say.
“Getting legal protection is not such a problem, but getting the budget [for effective enforcement] will be a bigger challenge," Mr Momberg said.
During the initial months of the survey, now in its second year, the researchers noted significant damage to reefs in the southern islands, particularly those closer to shore. However, recent explorations of the more northerly reefs revealed areas with “staggering” levels of hard-coral cover, according to FFI.
“After the first year of doom and gloom, finally we found these treasures,” said Mr Momberg.
The team discovered some reefs had up to 80 percent hard coral coverage, which means they can be classified as “excellent” according to global standards.
The scientists also said they were surprised to discover coral growing even in areas where water visibility was very low.
The archipelago’s position between the Pacific and Indian oceans means it is a unique “transition” habitat with marine life from both waters, Mr Momberg said.
The discovery has been hailed by researchers and the Department of Fisheries as an opportunity for Myanmar to develop diving tourism, which, while popular in neighbouring countries, is not currently offered here. Additionally, just a handful of tourists make it to the Myeik Archipelago each year, most of whom travel on expensive live-aboard boats.
“Coral conservation is very important for fish and the aquatic environment, and also for diving tourism which is important for the local community,” said U Lau Zunn.
“In Thailand and Indonesia diving tourism is well developed, but in Myanmar we haven’t known where the good dives sites are, or how to protect them.”
He stressed the need to ensure tourism development is done in a sustainable manner.
“Well-managed diving tourism can generate income locally and benefit the reef. The danger is that large-scale hotels create pollution and waste that would destroy the coral.”
The waters around the archipelago provide the main source of living for the local Moken communities.
However, the Moken – also known as the Salon, or sea gypsies – have become increasingly reliant on damaging dynamite fishing in recent decades. FFI is keen to work alongside the community to gain their support in protecting the reef.
"It is not difficult to change behaviour and [develop] locally managed marine areas," said Mr Momberg.
He added that once areas have been protected for several years local fisherman will see a “spill-over” of fish from the sanctuary into non-protected areas, which can boost yields.
Two proposed community marine management projects in the archipelago – one on Ross Island and the other on Langan Island – are set to be up and running by the end of the year, and training initiatives have already taken place.
But blast fishing is not the only risk to the reefs, Mr Momberg said. The archipelago is also subject to illegal trawling, which can cause severe damage to sea beds.
U Mya Than Tun, a deputy director at the Department of Fisheries, said he welcomed the creation of a protected area around the archipelago to help marine conservation and allow the development of diving ecotourism in Myanmar. However, he said it would require a high level of cooperation between the national and regional governments, businesses and local residents.
“The Ministry [of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development] would like to prevent [further damage] to coral resources by developing a protected area in this region,” he said. “We know some coral resources have been destroyed by local fishermen and [bigger fishing] businesses.
“A protected area would help end this type of destruction but it is difficult to do [in practice].” – Additional reporting by Shwe Yee Saw Myint