The Fins United Initiative is traveling around the world to learn about our ocean's different Chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras) and the diverse people who study them. We are currently focusing on sharks you see in the Asia region... so of course we want to talk to the people in this area who work/interact with these animals!
Thanda Ko Gyi volunteers with Marine Megafauna Foundation as a research assistant in Myanmar. Learn about Myanmar's relationship with sharks in this latest "Behind the Fins" interview!
The Fins United Initiative: Thank you for your time, Thanda! What got you interested in marine biology?
Thanda Ko Gyi: I started diving in Sydney and it was mostly the social aspect about diving that I was enjoying so much. It wasn’t until after I moved back to Asia and I spent four weeks on Arborek Island in Raja Ampat, following around Marine Megafauna Foundation researchers on their manta dives, that I started enjoying learning and absorbing so much knowledge from them.
TFUI: Ooh, tell us more!
TKG: After returning to my home country, Myanmar, I started seeing how the lack of marine education and awareness was impacting the marine conservation efforts in the country, or rather the lack of urgency for the need for any protection and conservation efforts in the public eye. Majority of the people in my country are unaware of how precious and beautiful the marine life and the reefs are in their ocean, and why they should be protecting the fragile ecosystem that we are all benefiting from. There are international organisations working on amazing conservation projects but I felt as a Myanmar and who have been lucky enough to see and experience what I have, I feel I am in a unique position to keep sharing and talking about the ocean and about all my favourite fish with Myanmar people. So I continued to learn more and hopefully I can get people around me to care more.
TFUI: Where are you currently volunteering?
TKG: I currently volunteer for Marine Megafauna Foundation as a research assistant in Myanmar. It’s mostly helping them sort out the logistical needs in the country, so that more manta (Mobula Birostris) research can be carried out in the region. Only one manta aggregation site is known in the country right now, so MMF is trying to learn more.
TFUI: That's amazing-- and really important work! What else are you a part of?
TKG: I also help MMF manage MantaMatcher.org with Myanmar database. I help reach out to divers to collect manta belly photos for ID and then a lot of matching at the end of season to identify the individuals and check them against the Myanmar and Thailand database.
TFUI: How is it doing this year?
TKG: This year we’ve added almost 100 new manta ID’s in the Myanmar database, all from one site which is super exciting because it is not even visited as regularly. There have also been a few very interesting manta encounters that stretch over a few years between Myanmar and Thailand. It’s probably been the most exciting manta season since I started diving here four years ago. Other than this, I tend to put my hand up anywhere a Myanmar/English speaking dive master skills might be needed.
TFUI: What do you think is the best way to get the general public interested in marine conservation initiatives/policies?
TKG: I feel there is a lot of negative conversation about the dreadful state of the ocean and your surroundings to digest these days and it doesn’t always lead to a useful and productive action. I think without offering a workable solution to problems about how everyday people can care and get involved and feel like they can contribute even a little bit for a better future, and managing to steer often negative online chatter into somewhat positive action, people tend to disengage from meaningful effort.
TFUI: So what can we do?
TKG: I find it helpful to share my passion and excitement at continuously learning about the wonderful and interesting marine life when I am trying to engage with people I meet in Myanmar. There are very few people who dive in Myanmar, so anytime they get to learn little fun facts about the marine life and see photos from a diver’s perspective, there is more curiosity and maybe a bit more receptive conservation. A lot of the population on the coast in Myanmar rely heavily on fishing as their livelihood and live with very little that I think it is very important for a nice balance of educating and awareness and still supporting to help make their lives better.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment? What about sharks?
TKG: Not having lived long periods on the Myanmar coastline myself, I am not entirely sure how to answer this to be honest. I think most coastal communities in Myanmar see and rely on the ocean as their source of livelihood and income and respect the ocean but at the same time, the ways and methods of fishing have changed along with the huge increase in local and international demand, while their standard of living haven’t necessarily improved in the last generation or so. A lot of rural coastal communities still struggle to support their families, find reliable income or go to schools and universities. Most communities still live without proper infrastructure like running water and electricity or rubbish collection. And in that reagrds, I feel the way they conduct themselves around the ocean has become more detrimental compare to thirty, forty years ago.
TFUI: How so?
TKG: Where traditionally in the old days, the fishermen might refuse to catch big marine life like whale sharks and dolphins or release them when caught unintentionally, because they are superstitious and respect “big animals”, now they bring everything in for meat to be sold in weight and know there is a market for shark fins, even though it has never been a delicacy to the Myanmar people themselves. I suppose the issues have to be embraced as a whole where education about their ocean environment has to be accompanied with ways for the communities to be able to stop living day to day and lift their livelihoods to a higher standard.
TFUI: So why do you think sharks are important? What do you tell your family and friends about these animals?
TKG: When I started diving a lot in Australia, my mother’s response every time I spoke to her about my dive trips with the university dive club was “What about the sharks?”. And I would explain to her that they are like dogs, that some dogs are small and cute, some dogs are big and goofy and only occasionally you might see an angry dog that want to bite you for no reason. Back then I was enjoying discovering quite a few species of sharks when I dived around the New South Wales coast or up in the Great Barrier Reef.
TFUI: That sounds like a good analogy! The diving is really nice in Australia.
TKG: Then I moved back and started diving a lot in South East Asian countries, including Myanmar and you cannot deny the lack of big fish in most places. The consequences of over fishing is very obvious, especially in Myanmar where there is just one national marine park around Lampi island out of over 800 islands along the coast with little means to enforce regulation.
TFUI: How was the diving?
TKG: I’ve dived Myanmar the last five seasons quite extensively and I have probably only seen three, maybe four species of sharks, not counting the ones I see in different fish markets. Places that used to be teeming with sharks 15 years ago are almost barren now. I remember sharing excitedly about a place where we were regularly seeing lots of bamboo sharks in Myanmar with a marine program manager from an NGO in Myanmar, only to visit it ten months later to find it covered in derelict fishing net possibly wiping out the whole population in that site. Knowing that these fish are vital to the health of the ocean and to see the destruction of them in front of my own eyes without anyone even knowing about it was quite disheartening. Now when I meet people in Myanmar that asks me “..but what about the sharks?”, I tell them that they are disappearing the same way the tigers have been killed off in this country, except that you don’t even hear about it like you do with the tigers.
TFUI: That is so sad! So what has been the coolest marine science volunteering you've seen done?
TKG: Obviously I love all the work I have done with MMF and MantaMatcher; diving for the ID belly shots and sorting them and matching the patterns to see if they have been sighted before in Myanmar or Thailand. I get a kick out of finding a match. I remember matching a manta sighted in Myanmar to one in three different sites in Thailand over the period of fifteen years. She’s old and she’s been everywhere!!! And most importantly still alive and beautiful!
TFUI: Wow, that is amazing!
TKG: I have to also say the coolest or one of the most happiest and satisfying marine science experiences I’ve been involved in have to be with LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines) last year on Ticao Island for their pilot manta project. For me personally I wanted to learn and this being a pilot project, it was an amazing opportunity to see a project from the beginning. Plus I had never work with RUVs before, so all of that was super exciting. It was physically challenging in the beginning and I had doubts about my ability but by the end of the month, I was so happy with myself for getting the hang of this whole navigating to find your RUV in the current with your compass. I even managed to pick a new cleaning station for a RUV during a transect dive where we later saw both species of mantas together on the camera and a thresher shark a few minutes later. :) I have never seen the two manta species together in person, so this was a happy substitute. LAMAVE is still running this project, so I am hoping to put aside some time to head back there and hopefully see the familiar (manta) faces again!
TFUI: What is your favorite Chondrichthyan (shark, stingray, skate and chimaera) species and why?
TKG: Mantas (Mobula birostris) would be a bit of an obvious answer but how can you not be completely fascinated and mesmerised by these huge graceful creatures when you get to swim with them.
TFUI: Ugh, I can't wait to get to do that!
TKG: Once you exchange that eye contact and have them interact with you such curiosity, I can’t help but want to know more about them and what they do in the ocean all their lives.
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in five years?
TKG: I would like to believe that in the near future, manta conservation/research projects like the ones I’ve been involved with LAMAVE and MMF can be implemented in Myanmar and that mantas would be protected along with other vulnerable species and the necessary framework set up to support the conservation needs. And I would like to continue to find ways to support these efforts in what ever way I can.
TFUI: How so?
TKG: For now, I am in the process of setting up a project to continue cleaning up derelict fishing gear in Myanmar. It’s a serious problem most people aren’t even aware of. This project has been approved and will be supported as one of the solution projects by GGGI, Global Ghost Gear Initiative.
TFUI: That's amazing!
TKG: I am very excited for this opportunity and I am really looking forward to learning from these conservation communities and sharing this with the communities in Myanmar.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK thanda FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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