For the fishermen working off the coast of southern Myanmar, the March 15 storm came from the proverbial blue.
The effect was devastating: a fisheries sector almost completely obliterated, and as many as 700 workers either missing or dead.
“It was the first time in my 30 years working in the offshore fisheries sector to have a storm in the very middle of summer. We did not think there could ever be such strong winds in this season,” U Than Chaun, chairman of the Pyapon District Fisheries Federation, told The Myanmar Times in Pyapon earlier this month.
Swept away in the storm was more than K7 billion of equipment as well as more than 12,500 fisheries workers. Private boats and volunteer and government rescue workers spent the next few days busily saving those who had been swept out to sea. Fortunately, to April 5, all but 689 had returned home alive.
“The kyar pike sector,” U Than Chaung said, referring to the small bamboo rafts used to catch fish and prawns, “lost more than 3500 rafts worth a total of K6 billion to K7 billion. That is almost the whole industry. None of them have any insurance against natural disaster.”
The damage was most concentrated in Pyapon township, where fisheries are an important source of income.
“A serious amount of the wealth of Pyapon township was lost. Of course, there was no way we could expect this to happen; we’ve never had weather like that before,” a trustee from Pyapon’s Pyi Lone Chanthar Tharsi Pagoda said last week.
Many other fisheries industry veterans, both workers and owners, have reached similar conclusions since last month’s tragedy, which appears set to claim just shy of 700 lives.
The offshore fishing industry employs various methods to snare its catch. Along with the kyar pike, or tiger net, there are the hmyaw pike (drift net) and sain pike, among many others. But the most common and important is the kyar pike, which is based at sea, about 80 nautical miles from the shore, for seven to eight months of the year on anchored bamboo rafts.
Each raft has a group leader and two or three other workers. The men rarely return to shore, and are resupplied from motor boats. The catch, both fish and prawn, is processed and dried on the rafts and sent to Yangon by boat.
One fisheries businessman will usually own from 20 to 50 rafts, each worth about K2 million, as well as two to four motor boats. In the event of bad weather, the in-charge is responsible for deciding whether the workers should leave the raft for the motor boat.
Ko Aye Lwin Oo, 35, from Pyapon’s No 18 quarter, was group leader of a raft in the Khar Pyut area of Pyapon township that drifted at sea for five days and nights after the strong winds hit on March 15.
“The wind got strong on [March 15] and was so severe within one or two hours that motor boats that were on standby near the rafts could not approach us. They threw ropes to us but we couldn’t grab them,” he said.
“All huts and structures on our raft were blown away by the wind. The waves were about 30 feet (9 metres) high and quickly sank the raft because it was anchored in the sea. It all happened so quickly, before we knew it the situation was so bad that if we stayed on the raft we would definitely have been killed. So we abandoned the raft, cutting the rope attaching it to the zin tone [emergency raft] and drifted off into the sea.