Over the last couple of decades, the aquaculture industry has risen from obscurity to become a critical source of food for millions of people worldwide. This has come about mostly through export of sea food, fish and fishery products. Myanmar is earning more than $ 700 million by exporting its fish in various forms and flavours – cooked and smoked, prepared or preserved fermented, frozen, dried, salted, sauce and paste. In 2013, Myanmar exported a total of 345,000 MT (metric ton) of fish and fishery products to 32 countries with a total value of $ 536.27 million. Exported volume was about 7 per cent of the total 2013 fishery production, with the majority of export sales occurring via border trade for the regional market. Myanmar’s export volume to China increased by 48 per cent between the period 2009 and 2013. China and India are two biggest buyers of Myanmar fish. Myanmar’s annual fish production is around 900,000 tons. Myanmar’s fishery sector has been the fourth largest contributor to the national gross domestic product (GDP), and the fourth largest source of foreign exchange earnings in the past five years. Besides, the fisheries sector in Myanmar provides employment to 3.2 million people (800,000 full-time and 2.4 million part-time).
According to World Fish website, in 2016, total national fish production was 4,645,020 metric tons. Inland and marine fisheries make up nearly 78% of Myanmar’s fish production and remain a key contributor to the national fish supply. World Fish is an international, nonprofit research organization that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty. Fish is one of the most important sources of animal protein and micronutrients in Myanmar with average consumption levels estimated to be approximately 30 kg per person annually while the national average annual consumption of fish and fish products is 55 kg per capita.
As the majority of the households in Myanmar live along the four main rivers and in delta regions, the freshwater fish from the inland capture fisheries forms a mainstay of both daily diet and trade. Households generally prefer to consume freshwater fish over marine fish. A survey conducted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 found that fish accounts for about 22 per cent of protein intake of Myanmar households. Compared to neigbouring Thailand and Bangladesh, aquaculture’s contribution to total fish consumption remains low in Myanmar. However, with significant levels of malnutrition in the country, these figures are likely to hide a large diversity of consumption patterns and availability and types of fish consumed.
Like in many Asian countries, women and children tend to eat less fish than men. Despite fish being a cheap animalsource food, it is often still unaffordable to poor, rural households, resulting in diets that rely heavily on rice and are low in diversity. Besides, emphasis is paid to rice production as a crucial element of food security, with little or no recognition the fish component which gives the rice-based diet much of its nutritional value – in addition to calories and crude protein.
Fermented fish products are one of the most popular ones that are exported from Myanmar. Unlike fresh fish and seafood products, which are often too expensive in developing countries, traditional fermented seafood is comparatively cheap and well known. Fermentation of fish is an ancient technology that has already been employed by our ancestors a long time ago. The processing is traditionally used to overcome the perishable nature of fish. Since Myanmar and other south East Asian countries have a very high rainfall, they did not provide a congenial environment for simple sun drying of fish and fermentation was the only option to preserve fish.
Interestingly, fermented fish is an old staple food in European cuisines. There is evidence of the consumption of fermented fish during the Yayoi period (300 BC to AD 300) in Japan, in ancient Greece and also in the Roman era. The reason for the wide scale popularity of fermented fish products in Myanmar and other countries is the specific flavour generated which can induce appetite. A variety of flavours produced by fermented fish products can actually satisfy the tastes of consumers. Unfortunately most of fermented fish products are still local and not so easily found elsewhere.
The second most popular fish that is exported is dried salt water or sea fish. Myanmar’s dried fish are mainly exported to India and China. An exporter based in Yangon says that China buys about 60 per cent of Myanmar saltwater fish, with neighbours Thailand and India buying about 10 to 20 per cent. The rest is sold to local customers. “Surprisingly Myanmar people don’t like sea fish. Except China other countries do not buy a lot of saltwater fish from us, and nor do Myanmar people” he says. “I wish to export canned saltwater fish to countries like Bangladesh, where they eat a lot of canned fish,” said the exporter. Adding further he says, “I would like to again export Hilsa. This fish is known as king fish in Myanmar because it is very delicious with good smell when cooking”. Till a decade back Hilsa was Myanmar’s most exported fish caught in the wild, but that is no longer the case as stocks have declined due to overfishing. The size of both – the catch and the fish – have dwindled but people still want to eat them. Myanmar catches about 15-20% of all hilsa globally, second only to neighbouring Bangladesh which is responsible for about 60% of the total catch in the world. Indian Bengalis who love Hilsa to death were concerned when Indian Government banned import of hilsa from Myanmar after Bangladesh imposed the embargo on both fresh and frozen hilsa. Some of it was smuggled also during that period.
Extensive use of fish products like fish sauce and fish paste is a characteristic of typical Burmese cuisine. The demand for raw materials for making fish sauce and fish paste is high in Myanmar. Therefore, Myanmar has begun discussion with Thailand to import fish to use as raw material for making fish sauce and fish paste. Historically, fish sauces were widely used in ancient Mediterranean cuisine, as well prepared from different species of fish and shellfish, and from using the whole fish. Southeast Asian fish sauce is often made from anchovies, salt, and water, and is intensely flavoured. Anchovies and salt are arranged in wooden barrels to ferment and are slowly pressed, yielding the salty, fishy liquid. Burmese cuisine has been influenced by Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines due to its geographic location. Fish sauce is used as a staple seasoning and sometimes is also used as a base in dipping sauces. It has been embraced globally by chefs and home cooks due to its ability to impart umami or savoury taste.