Bailey Island is located at the remote outer northern end of the Myeik archipelago, and on December 16 last year it looked in good shape.
At around 2.30 pm a boat carrying photographer Lawrence Davis and scientists approached the island’s picturesque southeast bay on the seventh day of a trip investigating the archipelago’s northern coral reefs.
Mr. Davis dived into the water and down towards the long stretch of coral he had first visited about eight months earlier.
Floating about in a glorious abundance of color, he worked fast to record a kaleidoscopic variety of slug-like nudibranches, staghorn coral, fish and an array of other small marine life.
A juvenile emperor fish swam into view, along with angel and parrot fish. After about an hour of recording the reef the team from conservation organization Flora and Fauna International (FFI), the government and others moved on to the next dive site, wasting no time on a trip that is part of new efforts to understand the life contained below and above water within the 14,000 square miles of the archipelago.
Researchers are excited at the start of efforts to rediscover the natural treasures that survive in the maze of some 800 islands.
Little solid information exists still about mammal, reptile and birdlife on the 7,767 square miles of island territory where deer, pangolin, squirrels, bats, langurs, boars, gibbons and macaques have been reported.
In the sea, dugongs, turtles, otters, dolphins, whales and sharks are among the known residents.
Some 1,056 square miles of coral provides fish and other marine life with breeding grounds and protection.
After recent expeditions by FFI and others, it’s known now that the area contains some 300 species of coral, including two branching corals, Acropora roseni and Acropora rudis, that are on the IUCN red list of endangered species.
Though not as great a variety as that found in global coral hotspots in Indonesia, it’s still a high tally for surveyed reef territory of which up to 80 percent has been graded as “excellent.”
Scientists’ interest has also been piqued by coral reefs able to support rich fish life even in murky water off inshore islands.
“This finding excited the team and these reefs were among the most species-rich we visited,” FFI’s marine coordinator U Zau Lunn said after the group’s first expedition to the area earlier last year.
And there is a theory that floating coral larvae from unusually resilient coral from the Myeik area have helped seed coral revivals further south in Thailand.
Wake up call
Early this year, Robert Howard of FFI in Yangon was reviewing data from the December 2014 trip when he made an unwelcome discovery.
Colleagues from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had visited southeast bay on Bailey Island a few weeks after the FFI team had departed.
A part of the coral “wasn’t there anymore,” Mr. Howard was told. “All that habitat was just… gone.”
It takes about 30 years to grow complex coral that illegal blast fishing can destroy in 30 minutes.
“Destructive fishing practices are still rampant. It’s very worrying,” said the IUCN’s Southeast Asia deputy Petch Manopawitr.
Its teams had heard the sound of blast fishing in the distance on recent trips, he said. They also recorded the bombed remains of previously healthy reefs.
Light-luring night fishing in the area was catching too many species indiscriminately, and too many juvenile fish, he said. And even spear fishing is being overdone.
“We came across a boat load of mature parrotfish caught by four men in just over two days,” Mr. Petch said. “It’s not eaten locally. It’s all for export, mainly to China, and some to Thailand.”
As algae-eaters, parrot fish are vitally important to the health of coral systems.
Overfishing mainly by bottom trawling is now seen as an issue for all the ocean off Myanmar’s 1,740 miles of coastline. In May month the government announced a three-month moratorium on ocean fishing from June 1, due to concerns over diminishing fish catches and exports since 2012. That was since amended to allow some 1,000 boats to continue fishing. Since last year, foreign boats are no longer permitted to fish in Myanmar waters.
The archipelago’s old reputation as a wild and pristine place home only to Salon seafarers and as a one-time pirate stronghold is out of date.
For centuries the region’s peripheral location and long monsoons helped it evade the administrative orbit of the Myanmar, Siamese, or British rulers who claimed suzerainty over it, but that has changed in recent decades.
Increasing numbers of Bamar as well as some Kayin and others have made their home on the islands where they work mainly in fishing and small agriculture. Fruit and rubber are grown on some of the larger islands.
Intermarriage and pressure to settle is altering the traditional lifestyle of the Salon whose roaming territory already shared with fishers, settlers and the Myanmar navy is in the sights of yet more newcomers, including developers, tourists, government departments and international organizations.
The government’s decision to put forward the region for consideration on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites suggests an interest in preserving the integrity of the archipelago.
But legal and regulatory protections still apply chiefly on paper, even for the national park designated on Lampi Island since 1996.
Meanwhile activities and pressures on the ground are speeding up before protections are in place. It was revealed in May that scores of developers are waiting for permission from the Myanmar Investment Commission to build tourist resorts. A Singapore-based group is seeking to transform an entire so-called “Salon Island” to the south into a resort and casino.
While weak regulations clearly pose risks for islands already said to have lost most of their valuable trees to illegal logging, and to be suffering pressure on shoreline mangrove and sea grass habitats, efforts are increasing to safeguard the environment.
Conservationists hope to see a network of mini Marine Protected Areas (MPA) throughout the archipelago, including some areas that would be largely managed by local communities.
Working with Salon, Karen and Bamar fishing and farming communities, FFI is currently in the early stages of piloting two locally managed marine areas on Langann and Thayawthadangyi islands.
Petch Manopawitr suggested that a properly set up system of protected areas, connected to a similar system that already exists further south in Thailand, would “greatly boost the archipelago’s chances of a World Heritage Site listing.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.