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Photograph of a fishing boats in Cambodia
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Coronavirus, Migrants and Fisheries

Experience from Southeast Asia and the Pacific

The environmental impacts of COVID-19 are much discussed but still lightly documented, in part because they take a long time to manifest. They also tend to be considered at a quite generalised scale.

Here we take a more focused look at how the pandemic impacts the livelihood resilience of migrants who come from places dependent on an already vulnerable natural resource, namely fisheries.

Photograph of kids hopping on a boat in a fishing community in Thailand

Migrant Cambodian fishermen help to meet the high demand for maritime labour in Thailand. The precarity of fishing-based livelihoods helps us understand what drives people to seek work elsewhere in the first place.

Photo credit: ILO/Emmanuel Maillard

Much has been written about the environmental implications of COVID-19. On the one hand, early lockdowns appeared to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to clear the air in some of Asia’s more polluted cities as industrial production and commuting slowed. On the other, concerns that governments would seek to build back faster rather than better have sparked debate on the environmental lessons we might draw from the pandemic. But these kinds of high-level generalisations ultimately tell us rather little about the interface between the virus, its livelihood impacts and the environment.

To connect fishing specifically with migrant resilience to the secondary effects of coronavirus, we need to start with a more general premise: the ways in which the pandemic affects people and the environment depends largely on pre-existing issues of precarity and sustainability.

Employing sources from a desk-based study of the impact of COVID-19 on migrant resilience,[1] this blog offers some observations on just one way in which we can channel our understanding of migrant resilience to the shock of the pandemic through an environmental lens. Specifically, the precarity of fishing-based livelihoods helps us understand what drives people to seek work elsewhere in the first place, the extent to which natural resource-based occupations can provide a cushion for those affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic, and the need to identify causes of natural resource degradation in order to plump up that cushion to help migrants better cope with future shocks.

Three cases – Cambodia, Myanmar and Tuvalu - reveal very different contexts in which fishing-based livelihoods intersect with migration and COVID-19. Nevertheless, these three cases share deeper commonalities that provide lessons for long-term support strategies. These commonalities include the important role that women play both in small scale fishing and, in particular, in post-harvest processing and marketing.

A migrant Cambodian labourer on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand.

© ILO/Maryann Bylander

Cambodia

Cambodia’s population has the highest level of dependence on wild-caught freshwater fish in the world, with annual consumption at 63kg per capita and fish accounting for 61 percent of animal protein intake. Two million Cambodians fish for all or part of their food and income.[2] Tonle Sap Lake is the world’s largest single source of freshwater fish but has been under severe pressure from dams in the Mekong Basin and from local extractive activity.[3] Increasingly, rural Cambodian families have been sending members to seek work either in Phnom Penh’s garment factories or across the border to Thailand for jobs in construction, on fishing boats, seafood processing and other industrial plants, and domestic work. Internal migration also brings many rural Cambodians to work in tourism-related occupations in Siem Reap.[4] As the pandemic hit in 2020, a perfect storm of reduced international and domestic remittances and lost jobs in tourism combined with record low levels of the Tonle Sap Lake associated with both low rainfall and upstream dams impounding the Mekong’s headwaters.[5] This all came on top of a mounting micro-credit crunch, with many families unable to service loans and forced to sell land.[6] A result has been increased pressure on an already severely depleted fishery, leading to further degradation and heightened competition for dwindling stocks. This all comes on the back of steadily increasing competition, historically between local communities and large fishing lot owners, and more recently between fishers from different ethnic backgrounds – Khmer, Cham and Vietnamese – that have undermined community-based fisheries management.

Myanmar

Dawei in southern Myanmar has historically been highly dependent on marine fisheries. Artisanal near-shore fishing from small boats has faced growing competition from larger vessels, which have fished illegally inside the ten-mile limit that is supposed to demarcate industrial from local fishing practices. In turn, this has forced many local fishers to invest in larger boats and engines, putting them in debt and at odds with the law, and placing greater pressure on the fishery.[7] Growing numbers of people from Dawei have migrated to seek work in Thailand. The pandemic has simultaneously reduced remittances from such migrants and led some to return home. Meanwhile, interruption of supply chains and loss of markets due to Thai border closures and to restrictions on internal movement within Myanmar have led to price drops in fish markets of as much as 55 percent.[8]

Tuvalu

Tuvalu is a nation highly dependent on fisheries. As in the other two cases, fisheries involve both large scale commercial and small-scale artisanal components. Income from tuna boat royalties paid under the Parties to the Nauru Agreement represents the largest source of government revenue other than aid.[9] During the pandemic, supply chains have been interrupted, as has monitoring of the fishery through placement of Tuvalu nationals on foreign boats, reducing royalties and creating concerns over compliance with agreed quotas.[10] Meanwhile, near-shore fisheries have long provided an economic and subsistence mainstay in a country with extremely constrained land-based production possibilities, given the population density of about 450 per square kilometre. Tuvalu has not seen a single case of COVID-19, and there has been a significant government-sponsored return to outer islands by internal migrants who have otherwise been leaving fishing and farm-based occupations and moving to the capital Funafuti. This places renewed pressure on limited inshore fisheries, both because of population increase as people return to the outer islands and as a result of shortage of imported canned fish due to disruption of supply routes.[11] Support programs have included training in customary stockpiling, including fish drying and salting.

What do these cases tell us about the significance of the environment as a mediating factor in the impacts of COVID-19 on migrant livelihoods?

In Cambodia and Myanmar, competition between larger and smaller operations have impacted fishers’ incomes, in part provoking decisions to migrate to seek jobs elsewhere. In both Tuvalu and Myanmar, supply chain impacts have been a key factor in reducing income from fisheries and food availability. In all three cases, returning migrants have put pressure on an already stressed fishery. In Cambodia in particular, stresses both on migrant families and on the resource base is exacerbated by concurrent livelihood crises.

At the same time, all three cases show that fishing is an important fall-back occupation for food and income when movement is restricted and remittances decline, particularly among poorer migrant families. All show that well-defined access rights for the poor are fundamental for equitable and sustainable management of artisanal fisheries. It is also clear that community-level governance is a pre-requisite to sustainable use and access by the poor. In turn, effective management will continue to maintain small-scale fisheries as an important part of the livelihood safety net that is essential to deal with future pandemics and other shocks that interrupt movement of people and goods.

References

[1] The USAID-commissioned study explored the impacts of COVID-19 on migrants in the Asia-Pacific region. This blog is the work of the author and does not represent the views of USAID or the views of the University of Sydney.

[2] https://www.worldfishcenter.org/country-pages/cambodia

[3] Glenn Althor et al., “Large-Scale Environmental Degradation Results in Inequitable Impacts to Already Impoverished Communities: A Case Study from the Floating Villages of Cambodia,” Ambio 47, no. 7 (2018): 747–59, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-018-1022-2.

[4] UNESCO et al., “Overview of Internal Migration in Cambodia,” Policy Briefs on Internal Migration in Southeast Asia (Bangkok, 2017), https://bangkok.unesco.org/sites/default/files/assets/article/Social and Human Sciences/publications/Brief 2 - Country Brief - Cambodia.pdf.

[5] Galileo de Guzman Castillo, “Cambodia COVID-19 Situationer” (Bangkok, 2020), https://focusweb.org/cambodia-covid-19-situationer/.

[6] https://cambodianess.com/article/siem-reap-locals-debt-haunts-us-more-than-covid-19

[7] https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/episode-96-dawei-fishermen-tangled-in-net-of-licensing-and-law/

[8] https://digitalarchive.worldfishcenter.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12348/4374/a64765852bb8e76a29a51325de3f33ec.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

[9] https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/covid-response-plan-tuvalu.pdf

[10] https://devpolicy.org/covid-19-and-its-likely-impact-on-the-tuna-industry-in-the-pacific-islands-20200427-1/

[11] https://lmmanetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/LMMA-and-Tuvalu-Fisheries-Dept.-Covid-Update-7-Tuvalu-20.09.2020-1.pdf

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Emeritus Professor Philip Hirsch, The University of Sydney
Philip Hirsch is Emeritus Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sydney. He has written extensively on environment, development, natural resource governance and agrarian change in the Mekong Region. He is now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.