Carrots and sticks: incentives to conserve hilsa fish in Myanmar

Introducing incentive-based fisheries management in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady Delta will protect fish stocks, safeguard biodiversity and help protect the livelihoods of local fishing communities.

April 2017 - March 2021
Annabelle Bladon

Senior researcher (fisheries), Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

Inclusive blue economy
A programme of work supporting resilient marine and coastal ecosystems and the millions of people who depend on them to thrive by aligning incentives with investments
A fisher in a boat in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar

A fisher in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar. Hilsa stocks are increasingly threatened by overfishing and habitat destruction (Photo: Axel Drainville, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

For Myanmar's small-scale fishing communities, the hilsa fish is a vital resource. The hilsa fishery sector employs an estimated 1.6 million people in some of the country's most impoverished areas and provides an important food source for many more.

But hilsa stocks are increasingly threatened by overfishing and habitat destruction. The decline is stark: hilsa fishing generated an estimated US$45 million in export earnings in 2011-12; by 2015 this figure had plummeted to $15 million because of falling catches. 

The small-scale fishing communities of the Ayeyarwady Delta are highly vulnerable to income shocks. Poverty levels among fisher households are as high as 70%. Shrinking fish catches threaten people's livelihoods and limit access to an important source of protein. 

The project ‘Darwin-HilsaMM’, funded by the UK government's Darwin Initiative, aimed to design a system of incentive-based fisheries management that would ensure the long-term sustainability of Myanmar's hilsa fishery.

This ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach can help to align ecological and social outcomes for sustainable fisheries management: rebuilding fish stocks and safeguarding biodiversity while also reducing the vulnerability of local communities.  

What did IIED do?

Working in partnership with the WorldFish Centre, Yangon University, Network Activities Group (NAG), and the Department of Fisheries of the government of Myanmar, IIED developed a cost-effective and financially sustainable fisheries management system based on rigorous and participatory research.  

This initiative followed a project that helped enhance the effectiveness of an incentive-based hilsa fishery management in Bangladesh. Since hilsa are a resource shared by Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, this project promoted co-learning opportunities between the two countries, paving the way for the development of a transboundary hilsa fisheries management plan.  

Through research led by scientists from Yangon University, the project improved understanding of hilsa spawning seasonality and migration in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta. This knowledge guided our recommendations to government for new and improved regulatory measures, including closed seasons, hilsa sanctuary areas and new minimum net mesh size restrictions.

In order to understand the socioeconomic situation of the fishing communities that would be affected by the regulations, project partners conducted a large-scale household survey across the Ayeyarwady Region.  

This allowed us to determine the type and level of incentives needed to offset the short-term costs of abiding by new fishing regulations. Findings indicated an overall willingness to participate in the incentive scheme.

IIED and partners: 

  • Identified fiscal reform as a tool available to government at decentralised and national levels for sustainable financing of the scheme
  • Showed that by increasing the efficiency of revenue collection from the hilsa value chain and by adapting current tools to better target the value chain actors more able to pay, the Department of Fisheries and other government bodies could more than triple current revenues raised to a total of US$91 million per year 
  • Identified that revenues could be managed through a research and management fund, if a portion were earmarked for the incentive scheme specifically, or through a national Conservation Trust Fund, which would have greater potential to attract additional private financing, and
  • Made the business case to government for investment in incentive-based hilsa fishery management. We did this by estimating both the use and non-use value of the artisanal hilsa fishery, and by demonstrating how the potential economic benefits of an incentive scheme could outweigh estimated costs by up to nine times. 

Partnership with the Department of Fisheries allowed host-country partners to secure buy-in from central and regional government officials at an early stage in the project, and to identify the most realistic pathway towards the proposed reforms. 

In 2020, the Ayeyarwady regional government and elected parliamentarians, together with the regional Department of Fisheries, demonstrated a willingness to take ownership of the management system. A national hilsa fisheries management expert group has also been established, providing a platform for civil society to engage with and influence the development of the management system.

Although COVID-19 and recent political events have led to many uncertainties in Myanmar, this project has created an enabling environment for implementation of incentive-based hilsa fisheries management when the political climate is right. 

IIED's work on fisheries management in Myanmar featured in IIED's 2020 annual review

Key lessons

  1. Placing an economic value on a fishery helps focus decision-maker’s minds towards long-term sustainability. By making a bold, evidence-based business case for action, IIED and partners were able to build political will for more sustainable management of Myanmar’s artisanal hilsa fishery
  2. Active participation of artisanal fisherfolk in the project has helped inform them of the benefits of abiding by the recommended closed seasons, and generated support at the community level. With this local ownership, the recommended reforms stand a good chance of success.