In this episode, I talk to Thanda Ko Gyi - dive master and founder of Myanmar Ocean Project whose mission is to restore and protect the health of Myanmar’s oceans which are increasingly becoming impacted by overfishing.
Thanda shares the story of how she started diving while attending university in Australia, returning to Myanmar, discovering the problems with discarded fishing gear and eventually founding an organisation with a mission to help clean up the oceans.
The first part of the conversation is in English.
ဒုတိယအပိုင်းမှာ မြန်မာလို ပြောပါတယ်။
➤ Can you tell me how did all this begin for you? I know that you recently returned from Australia, is that correct?
It's not really recent. I returned in 2013. I learned how to dive when I was in Australia and I was diving with the university dive club quite a lot. So that really introduced me to the ocean but the thing I didn't realize was everywhere I was diving in Australia is a protected area. So you know there's plenty of marine life, people care about what happens to the local grouper or the turtle. You know people do regular cleanups.
There was a a bit of a rude awakening when I came back here in 2013. Everybody's talking about untouched paradise and it may have been untouched by tourism but it wasn't untouched by human impact, the fishing impact. The fact that there were no protected areas was immediately very obvious.
I realized Myanmar kind of needed [help]. There are people who are starting to push marine conservation efforts in the country but it's probably going to be a while before people actually catch on and become passionate about this. We have a population that's been so reliant on the fishing industry and there is no alternative income for the majority of the community on the coast in Myanmar.
So when I started doing cleanup dives, I had people donating boats or volunteering to dive with me and then word got around to this organization called Global Ghost Gear Initiative - I think somebody from the working group noticed what I was doing here and then reached out to me and said, ‘Hey you know we're this group that's supporting ghost gear issues all over the world. Do you want to pursue this further?’ And then I met up with her and then it sort of snowballed from there very very quickly which is how I ended up founding an organization so that I could do this work.
➤ Take me through how you fell in love with the ocean and diving. What attracted you to it?
I mean, it's always been on the back of your mind. You want to kind of try diving. I was just thinking today, I actually got into diving because it was after 2000 protests in Myanmar and I was uncomfortable with going home for the summer that year. So that was the first summer I spent in Australia.
I was living walking distance from the beach so I ended up going to the beach almost every day to snorkel and fell in love with that snorkeling experience. Then a friend of mine gave me a ‘try scuba’ voucher for my birthday and then I tried it and and then yeah and I really liked it. But it was one of those things that you don't really get into because diving is kind of expensive if you don't know the right group of people.
Then I eventually found the dive club at the university and diving through the club was super cheap. And if you are volunteering through weekends you get the trip for free because you're doing all the organizing and so I ended up doing a lot of that which is good because I also learned how to do all. I came out of my shell and having to organize all these trips and especially the long camping trips - it takes a lot of effort to organize the camping trip for 30 people in the middle of nowhere. So yeah I think it it probably taught me a lot of life skills.
➤ Can you tell me about the first time you saw a Burmese beach or your first Burmese diving experience after you returned. How was that?
I was very impressed straight away, compared to the southeast Asian countries I have dived in. You could tell there hadn't been sort of touristy damage in the sense that there are corals. But then you could also see the overfishing.
The first two years I was diving, you could see the damage from dynamite fishing a lot. There were places where you jump in and you could see different stages of post dynamite fishing. If there are sites that's been a while, the floor is just covered in bony fish - like just bones. Or if it's a fresh site, you go in and it's just dead fish but they haven't decomposed or they haven't been eaten. So I've seen different stages. I've heard the sound of dynamite going off in the water. It's less common now.
When I started diving it was probably still early with the tourists like the the resorts hadn't opened. Now there's a lot more island resorts and you know more awareness of the existence of potential for tourist money with marine tourism. So people care a bit about it now and they have been cracking down on it.
So I haven't seen any dynamite fishing damage for maybe 2-3 years now but I don't know if it is because they have stopped or they have just moved away from places where people live.
➤ What is your immediate goal? What is the thing you're trying to achieve in the next three to six months?
We had a fairly intensive project planned around one of the island groups in Myeik archipelago at the beginning of this year which had been postponed because of the coup, and now because of monsoon. So my immediate plan before the end of the year hopefully is to resume that with the focus of trying to train either local researchers or students to be able to work with me.
I think if there's anything I have learned, Myanmar already has a shortage of skills and capacity. Now with COVID blocking travels - before it was so easy to get volunteers from anywhere who want to come and help out but now people can't travel so much - I think it highlights the need to actually train more local people to be able to do all of these things. But it’s not [going to be easy]. I suppose you have to start somewhere but it's not going to be like one season I teach somebody how to pick up nets and it's done. It has to be hopefully long-term commitment.
➤ So then what are the biggest challenges? Is it just financial? Are people welcoming this? Do they know that they need to learn this?
I was super surprised how receptive the communities are. When I started, I mean, I’m going to these island villages that I’ve never been to, kind of inviting myself to stay in the community and then to explain what I'm doing - everybody has been super supportive as most people I encounter. They're excited to see a Burmese group or Burmese organization doing these things.
➤ What were some of the insights you learned when you started asking these fishermen? What were some of the main takeaways?
Well, I learned that the fishermen, like all Burmese people, don't plan. I was asking them, 'How much net do you buy each season?' 'How much of it do you lose?' and most of them couldn't give me an answer. So I'd be like, 'Okay, when was the last time you lost the net?' and, 'How much did you spend to replenish it?' and then I would calculate for them to say, 'Hey so this is how much you spend on nets per season,' and then they were like, 'Oh!' Like they don't seem to budget. And then I would ask them, why they're losing [gear].
There were a few people who admitted to losing nets because they were fishing too close to pinnacles and then I'll ask them, 'Look, you've been fishing in this area for 20 something years, you know there's a pinnacle underwater. Why do fish so close to it?' And then they would tell me because there are no fish left in the open ocean. So they come closer into shore, closer to reefs where a lot of the young fish still are. So that's a big no-no and they know that.
But then because there's so much fishing pressure with the big fleets now - with trawlers and purse seining - so [the fishermen] have had to come inside.
And then the other really interesting thing I learned was most of them were telling me, 'Oh it's gear conflicts with trawlers coming into our area,' because there are different zones where different fishing boats are supposed to operate, so things like this don't happen. Initially I thought, 'Okay you're just not taking responsibility for your own action. Why do you keep blaming other boats?'
But it was the same answer in every village I visited and interviewed and so I realized, 'Okay maybe they are telling the truth.' So I sort of restructured my questions and started asking, 'Okay so when was the last time you had an incident with a trawler where you lost your boat?' 'What did you do when that happened?' 'How often does that happen?'
And you start to learn pretty alarming things. I mean I only started pushing for this sort of question structure towards the end of my expedition so I only have a small sample of interviews but for most of them, it was happening almost every month or every five weeks and to the point where this is so regular that they were saying, before they would deploy their nets - so it's a mile or two long in the water - just drifting and they will all take a rest and sleep, but now, the past couple of seasons because there's a huge influx of fishing boats in Myanmar now, they don't even sleep or nap anymore. They will be on the lookout for other boats coming this direction.
Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.