Discovering Myanmar’s Uncharted Biodiversity for Coral Reefs

Blog 23 Apr 2021 by Emily Darling
WCS Marine Technical Advisor Dr Meira Mizrahi talks about the importance of data accessibility and open access information in a changing world, and about how MERMAID is supporting community efforts to declare two new marine protected areas in Myanmar.

Meira, can you tell us a bit about your work and how you jumpstarted adoption of MERMAID in the platform’s newest country, Myanmar?

Absolutely – I’m the Marine Technical Advisor for the WCS Myanmar Program. I’ve been with WCS coming up on two years now, and for most of that time have been based in-country in Myanmar.

MERMAID, and coral reef ecosystem monitoring are very new for the Myanmar program. When I started with the program two years ago, we didn’t have any sort of systematic ecological data being collected through dive or coral reef surveys. The team all had robust backgrounds in marine sciences, but there were few ecological surveys happening in our field sites, so we were almost starting from scratch. We first started the team out with some dive training, and some pretty basic fish belt and point intercept transects (PITs) to look at reefs. We were trying to collect data to help us plan for two new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that had been identified by communities as potentially important coral reef sites. We were in the middle of the process of going out to collect data, then entering that data into excel, when I first heard about MERMAID. I signed up for a training webinar, and was impressed! 

I used to work in coral reef monitoring in Belize, where  I spent all my time collecting and entering data – [laughs] checking it, entering it, checking it, entering it, it wasn’t a fun process. I remember that being such a tedious job using excel, so learning about MERMAID was really exciting. What I liked most was the global dashboard – our team is very visual, and have strong expertise in programs like GIS and have a knack for anything to do with mapping, so having a way to visually show people what’s happening underwater in these remote locations that not a lot of people are able to access was a really neat feature. 

I ended up running a training internally with our own staff, and then we had interest from some of our other partners including the Forest Department, Pathein University, and a partner NGO Fauna & Flora International (FFI). So far our WCS team are the ones entering the data into MERMAID, but we’re really excited to have our partners interested and thinking about the platform as a way to store the country’s coral reef data. FFI are partnering with us on a Blue Action Fund project and have collected a lot of coral reef data throughout the southern coast of Myanmar. We think that MERMAID could be a really useful way for us to consolidate all of our data to help us report on how Myanmar’s coral reefs are looking. 

With our own teams, adoption of MERMAID has been rapid – our younger staff especially are super tech savvy, and have taken to the platform really well. It’s been surprising how quickly data gets entered into the platform once it has been collected.

Where are these two new MPA reef sites, and what is the data telling you about how coral reefs are faring in Myanmar?

We’ve collected coral reef data from two sites in Myanmar so far – Gwa Kyun, and Nantha Kyun. These two areas are not official MPAs yet, but we’re working on developing them. Our team was able to share the data we input into MERMAID’s global dashboard with our partners so they could get a look at what’s happening in these prospective MPAs – in the past we have worked closely with the Forest Department and we maintain partnerships with adjacent coastal communities to develop inshore fisheries co-management areas.

Gwa Kyun is an island that actually falls within a co-management area we’re working on, so the ecosystem data from that area was really neat for the communities to see. When I went to Gwa I was pleasantly surprised by how intact the coral seemed there, compared to a lot of other areas in the western seascape of Myanmar it’s pretty vibrant. We didn’t find a lot of fish, but that’s because the area has been  quite heavily fished up until very recently.

In general, the main areas that have intact coral reefs in Myanmar are in the Myeik archipelago, near the border of Thailand. There are around 800 islands in the area, and the coral reefs there support the livelihoods of many small-scale and artisanal fishers. Most small-scale fishers in Myanmar operate in inshore areas and around coral reefs, so reefs are incredibly important for local small-scale fisheries and the communities that WCS works with.

Some of the major threats to reefs in these regions are overfishing, destructive fishing practices and illegal fishing – mainly from larger offshore fishing vessels that operate illegally in inshore areas. In Myanmar, fishers are licensed to operate in either inshore and offshore areas – inshore areas are limited to  small-scale fishing vessels  operating within ten nautical miles of the coast, and then you get larger boats operating offshore. However, little formal protection or monitoring of these rules exists, so there is still a lot of pressure from trawling boats and light boats operating purse seine fishing activities mostly targeting squid, but ultimately a great deal of bycatch too. Some of the fishing methods employed in these nearshore environments can be quite damaging. The development of MPAs like the two we are currently working on with the help of MERMAID is one of the ways that we try to mitigate the threat of overfishing. We also develop co-managed areas, which are spatially explicit inshore areas that are managed by the communities that we work with. These areas are zoned similarly to an MPA- so you’ll get areas that are no-take, seasonal closures, and multiple use zones. They’re a way for local communities to build ownership over their seascape and to sustainably manage their resources.

How have you been able to put data from MERMAID to use since starting to adopt the platform last year?

MERMAID is an easy medium to share – we can just take a screenshot of a site with the fish belt information or the PIT which makes it quite easy for us to report back to communities, civil society organizations, and donors on ecosystem health. We’re using the data we’ve collected so far to establish a baseline for these two prospective MPA areas that we can update in a couple of years to check on the progress of our conservation efforts. We are also using the data to inform our marine spatial plan and zoning allocation for the Nantha Kyun MPA that we’re working on. When we combine the underwater monitoring data with local fishing data we’re able to better understand how people fish and interact with that environment, which makes us able to allocate zoning regulations that will be most beneficial to the species found in the area, while taking into consideration the needs and aspirations  of local fishers.

What’s your vision for the future of Myanmar’s coral reefs?

Myanmar has tremendous biodiversity in their marine seascapes, and much of it is just not really known. It’s been really exciting to work on these monitoring projects, as many of these sites have never been documented from a scientific perspective before. To be able to document this data, and to show people what is in their own backyard, to be able to elicit this sort of desire for conservation and management of these marine ecosystems is incredible. I have a lot of hope about what we could achieve through collecting these data. One day I would like to see MERMAID available in local languages so that students who are keen to go into conservation can interact with the data and see what’s going on at these sites even if they can’t actually get out to them in person. 

Publicly available data is so important – having freely available information that is open access, that people can see and take ownership of, maintaining a flow of open and freely accessible information, that is what MERMAID is enabling us to do in Myanmar and that is so important at a time like this.