Athens Zaw Zaw –
With a swift breath the teenage boy dives into the turquoise waters of southern Myanmar, a spear clutched in his hand, but below him lies nothing but a graveyard of broken, grey coral.
He is one of the Moken, a nomadic seafaring tribe who have perfected this freedive fishing technique over hundreds of years among the 800 islands that dot the Myeik archipelago and neighbouring southern Thailand.
Until recently the sea provided them with everything they needed: a base for boats they lived in, fish and seafood to eat and bounty such as pearls to trade with islanders for fuel and rice.
But the waters have been devastated by the commercial fishing industry that has eaten away the area’s once abundant marine life.
The destruction has been wrought by fishing boats, many believed to be from neighbouring Thailand, who use dynamite and trawlers to sweep the seabed.
In a cruel chain reaction, some Moken youths have ended up working for the fishing fleets that are destroying the ecosystem that supported them through the generations.
“When we were young, a husband could easily support his family,” Kar Shar, the Moken leader in Makyone Galet village.
“Now the whole family has to work to survive, and sometimes even that is not enough.”
Many islanders, including local Karen and Burmese as well as the Moken — known as Salon in Myanmar or “Sea Gypsies” in the West — have been caught up in the trade.
“There is a lot of dynamite fishing,” said Jacques Ivanoff, an expert at France’s CNRS and the Musee de l’Homme who has spent decades working with the Moken.
It’s risky, illegal work. The fishermen travel to the deserted outer islands where they are less likely to be caught.
There the divers search for the best spot, before throwing in the dynamite and quickly reversing away.
Some breathe through thin plastic tubes hooked up to compressors, while others use no equipment. Many suffer decompression sickness, which can leave them crippled and unable to walk.
Others die as they swim up to the surface, or never surface at all — a terrible price to pay for a business whose profits largely slip overseas. “People say the boats are from Thailand,” said 54-year-old Moken man Ko Matt.
A Norwegian research vessel which surveyed the Myeik archipelago found rampant overfishing had led to a 90 per cent fall in the biomass of open ocean species of fish. Many of the Moken say fishing is no longer enough to sustain them. — AFP