Mergui Archipelago is located in southernmost part of Myanmar (Burma), comprises over 800 beautiful islands. Due to its virtual isolation till recent years, the islands and surrounding seas are alive with an amazing diversity of nature and very beautiful underwater scenes and marine life.
Just north of the Surin Islands, an imaginary line divides Thai waters from Myanmar's Mergui Archipelago. Also known as the Archipelago, this immense area covers approximately 36,000 sqkm (14,000 sq miles) and included roughly 800 islands.
The islands are characterized mainly with rugged, high-profile limestone and granite topography. One obvious difference, aside from the sheer number of Myanmar islands, is their unspoiled terrestrial scenery. Dense brush and rainforest cover most areas above the high-tide line, while vast stretches of mangroves and magnificent white-sand beaches are interspersed with rocky headlands, tidal creeks and a few freshwater rivers.
The largest and highest island is King Island at 767 meters across the inland channel from Mergui (Myeik). Mergui Archipelago is also the home of Myanma’s first National Marine Park named, Lampi Marine National Park, it was declared an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2003.
The Lampi Island is the biggest island within the park and the core of the marine national park. 48 kilometers long and hilly (150-270 meters above sea level), Lampi island has a rocky coastline and beautiful sandy beaches, bays and inlets.
Several of the larger islands have government approved and established villages and are home to small communities of Moken 'sea gypsies,' mixed with migrated ethnic groups of Bama, Karin, Mon and even Shan.
The vast majority are uninhabited and largely untouched by humans.
The eco system in the archipelago's virtual isolation from most of mankind's influence on the natural environment has given the islands and the surrounding waters of the Andaman Sea a great diversity of flora and fauna, contributing to the region's growing popularity as a diving destination, representing mega faunas such as whale sharks and even killer whales.
On the islands themselves, various animals thrive, including deer, monkeys, tropical birds including hornbills, and wild swine. There are even unconfirmed reports of Sumatran rhinoceros on Lampi and this has been widely discredited.
For Decades in the past the only human inhabitants in the area are Moken, namely Salon in Myanmar.
The Moken are sea nomads that reside in the Mergui archipelago off the coast of Burma and Thailand. With a history that extends to over 4000 years of roaming the seas from Madagascar to Easter Island, the Moken are physically and spiritually adapted to life in and above water.
They have very shy and primitive like nature and unique way of living. Sea is described as their mother. Being affectionate to sea, they are excellent diver who often are under water for 6-8 minutes at a time.
There are real live stories about Mokens that they knew about the oncoming Tsunami and fleet into the open sea way before the waves hit their villages. They also have an ability to gather fishes in the water.
The entire family live on their boats called Kabang most of their life, they have traditionally living 9 months of a year on their Kabang. The French anthropologist, Jacques Ivanoff, stated that Kabang is a symbolic embodiment of a human being, with mouth and anus, and with different organs. That is why parts of the boat are named after organic parts of the human body, for example, la-kae (stomach), ta-bin (cheek), tu-koh (neck), ba-hoy (shoulder), and ta-bing (ribs).
Their ways of life and customs can only described as very characteristic.
The biggest problem is the Environmental threats to Mergui Archipelago can be separated as In-Land and Marine threats.
In-Land threats include illegal lodging, illegal deforestation for plantation by migrated ethnic groups some out reached islands due to lack of protection and transportation difficulties of the official organizations.
A very serious environmental problems threaten the Reefs, Biodiversity and Marine life are overfishing, using of destructive fishing methods such as Trawling and Long-line fishing have already put heavy pressure on fish populations and the marine habitat in general, adding to that are cross country illegal fishing from neighboring country as far as from Indonesia that catches anything and everything using advance equipment and powerful boats usually outran the authority.
Others illegal method practicing in the area are –
Cloning multiple vessels of registered fishing vessel to increase catch and avoid authority.
Trawling close to the islands that far from the authority to keep eyes on destroying everything on the way.
The usage of Light-fishing method is also playing a major environmental threat even they are legally approved. You can see most of the usual fishing spots are swarm with Light-Fishing boats and lighting the sea and surrounding are like Las Vegas attracting marina animals for miles.
The recent new threat is the usage of prohibited fishing nets that even a small juveniles cant escape.
but the biggest threat is blast fishing with dynamite, which Myanmar has done little to discourage due to low number level of education and understanding as well as lack of support from various government and NGOs alike.
The noise of makeshift bombs go off at least once during a multi-day trip anywhere in the archipelago especially in the areas where there has most vibrant and diverse ecosystem thrived. Virtually almost all the Mergui Archipelago sites show at least some evidence of blast fishing, from craters of broken coral to piles of orange cup corals and even huge chunks of rock that have been blasted off vertical walls.
Abandon fish gears can be seen is some area with dead marine animals are common to see underwater sometime an abandon fishing net covering entire underwater pinnacle killing all the colonies of corals underneath.
Another problem is the demand of dried exotic marine life from China through locals and Thai buyers, common items are turtles, seahorses, dried sea cucumber, and even giant clams.
The giant clams hunters let their boat to be stranded on the reef during low tide and a few of them use crowbars to pry the giant clams out of the corals damaging the entire reef for MMK20,000 per kilo after dried.
The development of tourism from 2014 to date is giving glimpse of hope for Mergui Archipelago an opportunity to protect from threats mentioned above.
After the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism approved to operate day return trips in Kawthaung area, the dramatic effects of illegal activities become obvious.
The increase number of under going Resort Developments on some islands, livaboard cruising trips, visiting private yachts and dive safari tours are also creating conditions to reduce threats and Illegal activities. Previously there are only two Hotel operations Andaman Club, a five stars Hotel & Casino on Thu Htay Kyun and Myanmar Andaman Resort on Macleod Island (Koh Yin Kwa Island). The proposing companies of some newly approved and ongoing applications have already protecting and safe guarding their respected islands and their occupancy is making the illegal fishing boats to restrain from coming close to those islands. The security people can convince the local fishermen not to conduct destructive fishing methods around respected islands. The local fishermen also have benefit in getting proper shelter during bad weather conditions and also be able to seek help in case of emergency.
The present of tourist in increasing numbers and interval, the forming of Costal Police Force with newer and more powerful boats makes illegal activities to moved locations. For example the dynamite fishing has decreased around new tourist routes and areas and moving to some outreached islands such as East Sular and West Sular and around those island.
However the current situation and improvement in Ecotourism sector is barely enough to eliminate environmental threats and illegal activities. The Mergui Archipelago is too vast for a single Industry or an Organizations or even Government to protect and preserved completely.
On the other hand the ceasing of Environmental threating activities mean the welfare and lives of local fishermen will be effected directly or indirectly. Only the combine force and collaboration of helping hands from all Stakeholders can create a brighter & sustainable future for Mergui Archipelago and everything in it.