April 24, 2012

 

Myanmar seeks to revive once-thriving shrimp industry

 
 

Myanmar was the fourth largest shrimp exporter to the US between 1999 and 2003, after Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.  In the long run, it could eclipse any or all of them in the market.

 

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By F.E. OLIMPO

 

 

With 224,000 acres of brackish water and 218,000 acres offreshwater ponds, Myanmar - or Burma, as many people still prefer to call it - has enough room for a full-scale aquaculture development. Compared to Thailand, which relies on migrant workersto tend its aqua farms and man production lines of its shrimp processing plants, it has a surfeit of cheap labour.

 

One of its greatest advantages at the time was its being new in the field. While it had prawn culture and what is called in the industry as "extensive" type of shrimp farming since the 1980s, or perhaps earlier than that, semi-intensive farming was introduced in the country only in the 1990s.

 

The rapid growth of Myanmar's shrimp industry started with the transfer of the semi-intensive technology from Indonesia in the early 1990s. Before that, nearly 100% of local shrimp production used "extensive" technology whereby coastal areas were enclosed in dykes with seawater allowed in through a simple sluice gate. It was called "extensive" because one enclosure usually involved a huge area of at least 50 hectares.

 

In most cases, farmers got their shrimp fry through entrapment. During the high tide, they would let seawater enter their enclosures and entrap the fry. Very rarely would farmers buy fryfor their ponds. Not surprisingly, these farms had very low yield -- only 100 kilogrammes a hectare at most.

 

In the early 2000s, whileshrimp farming in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippineshad already matured, Myanmarwas practically just starting, giving it the enviable advantage of learning from the other countries' successes - and mistakes.

 

In 2004, these hopes were dashed. With the continued recalcitrance of Myanmar's military government to adopt political reforms, the US government slapped the country with economic sanctions. As more than half of its shrimp shipments went to the US, the sanctions proved to be a death knell for the industry.

 

While exports to China and Europe continue to this day, Myanmar's shrimp industry as a whole began to go downhill since 2004. Before the sanctions, 95% of the country's farmed shrimp production was exported. Even with production down by more than half, only 20% of Burmese shrimp is currently exported. The rest are consumed locally.

 

SoeTun, chairman of the Myanmar Shrimp Association (MSA), says the country's shrimp industry is practically at a standstill today. From 18 companies in early 2000, only fiveremain in intensive shrimp culture operations now.

 

Dr.ThetMhoo, general secretary of the Myanmar Aqua Feed Association, says farmers have cut production by up to 80% to limit their investment and potential losses. More than half of the country's feed factories have stopped operating.

 

What remains of the industry battle not only external factors but also internalfactors."Competition from countries like Thailand and Bangladesh is stiff enough, yet it is compounded by high taxes," laments U HlaMaungShwe, chairman of the Myanmar Shrimp Entrepreneurs Association.

 

"The EU imposes 13.7% tax on Myanmar and Thailand but Bangladesh is untaxed. The Thai government refunds 7% to its exporters if they export to the EU. By contrast, Myanmar exporters pay 13.7% to the EU and another 10% to the Myanmar government," says U HlaMaungShwe.

 

With the wind of change now blowing in Myanmar following last year's election of a civilian (though military-backed) government, there is a strong sense of optimism among shrimp farmers and entrepreneurs.

 

While the situation remains dire, U Tun Aye, managing director of seafood processing company ShweYamone notes, "Happier days are not far away." SoeTun agrees, "With the new administration, we are witnessing many political changes and timely economic reforms."

 

Although the government has yet to adopt concrete changes and initiatives in support of shrimp farming, the industry on its own is doing what it can. Late last year, the MSA sponsored a shrimp culture seminar in Yangon, conducted by the American Soybean Association (ASSIM). Early this year, MSA officials and technicians introduced specific pathogen resistant (SPR) strain of the white shrimp to the Rakhine State in Myanmar's west coast-as a first step towards more intensive shrimp production in that state.

 

In March, the MSA invited Dr Amir Sagi, a professor of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and Israeli businessman HaimAvioz, to introduce mono-sex shrimp culture to the Myanmar. The Israeli technique, which Myanmar plans to adoptsoon, increases production by altering the DNA of the shrimp to change its sex. It differs from hormone-based treatments commonly used by other Southeast Asian countries.

 

"We are arranging to farm freshwater male shrimp as it can earn a higher price. Males are bigger than females and have stronger demand," said U Han Tun, vice chairman of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation.

 

"They feed females a hormone medicine for 5- 10 days and after that they breed them," he explains. U Win Kyaing, general secretary of the federation, notes recurring weaknesses in the current species were responsible for most of the crustacean's growth problems.

 

"The female shrimp stop growing when they are pregnant, unlike the males. And when the males shed their skin, they are more vulnerable and females often kill and eat them. This is one reason why we have lower production in shrimp farming," says U Win Kyaing.

 

Having learned from the mistakes of its neighbours, whose shrimp industries had to confront environmental degradation problems brought about by the conversion of mangrove forests into shrimp farms, Myanmar has the unique advantage of being able to farm using sustainable techniques.

 

Through technology transfer and adaptation, Burmese shrimp farms are able, for instance, to avoid diseases without the use of chemicals, which make their products highly attractive to selective markets.

 

"We have great demand from Japan, where consumers are very aware of the risk of chemical contamination and they have confidence in our products," says U Tun Aye. "Our buyers there say they will not source their shrimp from Thailand and Vietnam if we're able to meet their demand."

 

But the industry, says U HlaMaungShwe, needs some help from the government to reach its full potential.  Having gone through years of economic sanctions, naturally the government lacks the capacity to be of any help financially. Hence, key figures in the industry are calling for foreign investments to rehabilitate the shrimp sector.

 

U Win Kyaing laments that while "other business sectors in Myanmar have attracted foreign investment, there is almost none in the fisheries and shrimp industries."

 

Myanmar has plenty of natural resources, he adds, including workers, but did not have enough capital to invest. With foreign investments, the industry could solve its funding problems and improve technology, farming techniques and market knowledge.

 

As one shrimp farmer inthe Yangon Region puts it, "We need foreign partners to help us by providing money, strategies and links to markets. Myanmar already has extensive fish and shrimp farms and other basic resources." He adds, "All it needs is capital to revive this once-thriving industry."
        
     
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