As overfishing empties Thailand’s seas, Kit Gillet meets some of those desperate to take what is left and a local who is fighting back. Pictures by Luke Duggleby


19 OCT 2013

It’s almost midnight, 10 kilometres off the west coast of Thailand, and Thamarat Sachanyarat has been circling for hours, carefully watching the swirling patterns on his boat’s sonar. Peering closely at the monitor with failing eyes, the 54-year-old sighs and pushes the throttle, moving his wooden fishing boat on to a different patch of sea.

All around, the lights of dozens of other boats can be seen in the pitch-black night, each crew in pursuit of a resource that is fast shrinking in the face of massive overfishing.

“We are all worried about overfishing. My grandfather would use a torch and shine it into the sea, and the fish would come to the surface. It was like the sea was full,” says Thamarat, wistfully.

He uses high-powered lights to draw the fish to the surface, to be scooped up in giant nets that take a dozen or more crew members to haul aboard. It is a decidedly commercial operation; if he and his crew don’t return with at least 1,500kg from each trip, they lose money.

Thailand is the world’s third-largest exporter of fish and fishery products, with exports valued at about US$7 billion in 2010. Between 2002 and 2011 exports almost doubled. Only China and Norway export more.

Taking into account the sheer volume of fishing that has taken place off Thailand over the past few decades, improved technology that until recently increased the size of catches, and what most consider to be an impotent regulatory system, it appears the nation’s waters are reaching a critical time, with some species nearing the point of no return.

“The Gulf of Thailand is one of the most exploited seas in the world when it comes to fishing. Compared to a few decades ago, in the Gulf of Thailand there are pretty much no fish,” says Sirasa Kantaratanakul, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace in Thailand.

Thamarat and his crew fish the Andaman Sea rather than the Gulf of Thailand, but here, too, fish populations are feeling the effects of heavy overfishing.

To improve his catch rate, 10 years ago Thamarat bought his first sonar, one with a range of 150 metres. Late last year he was forced to upgrade to one with a range of 750 metres: “Now it is a race to get to the fish, so the boat with the biggest sonar normally wins,” he says.

According to official statistics, from a peak of almost 300kg/hour in the 1960s, Thai fishing boats are catching just 18kg/hour today on average, despite the advances in technology.

“There has been enormous decline in the area since the 1960s, with entire species wiped out,” says Boris Worm, a marine research ecologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, Canada.

IN THE NIVAT FISHING PORT, outside the southern city of Phuket, several dozen commercial fishing trawlers are moored up tightly along the docks. Members of the mostly Myanmese crews are washing fish guts from their bodies and rearranging the nets and equipment on deck after having returned hours earlier from a night or two at sea. One captain is blessing his boat, knelt over and placing flowers around the bow as an offering in the hope of clear weather and a good catch.

Even in the heat of the afternoon the dock is alive with activity, as hundreds of tons of fish are sorted and weighed by mostly young women, their children sitting or playing nearby, before being sold to waiting merchants. Crates of iced fish are piled high as men and women gather around wooden benches to bid on lots.

Around one bench a well-dressed Myanmese merchant wearing a thick gold chain around his neck has just outbid several others for 10,000kg of fish, which he plans to send to markets in Malaysia, paying 40 baht (HK$9.89) a kilogram.

“Five years ago it was 20 baht a kilo; it’s doubled in price,” he tells me. Trucks are waiting outside to take the fish onwards.

Nearby, Prawat Ungrangsee, a middle-aged fish merchant whose family own one of the largest fleets of refrigerated trucks in the south of Thailand, is counting his shipments.

“Most of the big fish are gone,” he says. “We used to have over 30 trucks a day just for tuna from the seas around Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – now we have maybe five to 10 trucks, and that all comes from Indonesia.

“There are so many big boats now yet it takes them much longer to fill their holds. Until recently fishermen used to be able to fill their boats in a night or two, now they need to spend several days out at a time to catch enough fish.”

Aware of the situation, Thai authorities have tried to limit fishing and establish non-take areas – it is now forbidden for boats to fish within three kilometres of the shore (five kilometres for the larger boats), where nurseries have been set up – but the regulation system is seen as weak and open to abuse.

“There are laws but they aren’t enforced,” Sirasa says. “You get fined 5,000 baht for fishing within three kilometres of the coast, but this is like a grain of sand for the larger fishers; they might as well just pay up before they head out for the night.”

Weak governance has also made it easy for boat owners to bypass regulations against illegal, unreported or unregistered fishing vessels.

“In 1979, Thailand said it would allow no new trawlers, but boat owners simply put many boats under one registration or switch the registration to newer, bigger boats and the government does nothing,” Sirasa says. “And then, every 10 years or so, the government has a general amnesty – it’s the fourth already; 2,107 vessels have been given amnesty this time. Last time it was about 4,000 vessels. Would you obey a law if, one day, you knew you would be pardoned anyway?”

IN RECENT DECADES, overfishing and the growth of the export industry have been particularly devastating for the small coastal communities that have relied on fishing for generations because they cannot simply pick up and move on when the waters are exhausted.

In 2004, the World Bank published a report that found small-scale Thai fishermen in general earn less than half the national average and often live in communities that lack basic infrastructure, such as roads and electricity.

A few hundred kilometres up the coast from Phuket, in the small wooden fishing village of Pahklongkleaw, Bunlong Jannoi has little to do. Dressed in a torn polo shirt and rolled-up jeans, the 38-year-old sits on the small dock surrounded by empty fishing boats. He used to fish for squid and anchovies, using a small, one-man boat that is moored nearby, but he hasn’t gone out for many months because “there are no fish”.

“In the past, we always had fish but the trawlers came through, took the fish, destroyed the sediment and soil, and now everything is gone. Even before that there were less and less for us to catch.”

The people in Pahklongkleaw live basic lives and have few material possessions beyond their small family boats.

“My family has always fished,” says 56-year-old Sumrauy Wansanit, sitting nearby. “But right now there are no crabs or anything else to catch so I’ve not been out for weeks.”

Bunlong has been fishing since he was a child – “I’ve only ever been a fisherman,” he says – but with savings running low, he doesn’t know how much longer he can go without work or what else he could do. He plans to try another part of the coast, where, he’s heard, the trawlers haven’t done as much damage.

“I have no wife or sons, so at least I don’t need to worry about their futures,” he says with a sad smile.

Around the dock other members of the community are busy constructing FADs (fish aggregating devices), tying coconut tree fronds to blocks of concrete that will be sunk two or three kilometres off the coast to serve as new feeding grounds for small and juvenile fish. The FADs create artificial environments that the villagers hope will rejuvenate their waters.

They have tried to do this before, however, but commercial fishing boats entered the “protected” waters to fish, taking advantage of the community’s efforts to restock the sea and often destroying the FADs in the process.

“Everyone just takes and takes,” says Piya Tasyam, a fisherman turned activist from the nearby village of Toong Noi. “And what really hurts is that the government never helps.”

Piya left school to become a full-time fisherman when he was 12. Now 42, he is slim and handsome, and exudes a natural leadership and intense earnestness when he talks.

Less than 100 metres from the sea, Piya’s house abuts a small channel where the village fishing fleet is moored. It is a comfortable and modern home, which he shares with his wife and three youngest children.

Standing on the platform of his fishing vessel, he shows me the difference between the nets village fishermen deploy and those used by some of the more immoral commercial crews.

“Look at the mesh of our nets and theirs and you can see how we are different to these fishers. Nothing can get through their net; they take everything out of the water,” he says, holding a piece of net that, when pulled tight, is almost a solid sheet of material.

Nets like these are illegal – they remove small species and young and undeveloped fish from the seas, thereby stopping ecosystems from regenerating – but, again, enforcement of the regulations is lax.

Piya has, in recent years, been leading efforts to forcibly protect local waters from outside fishermen, especially those on commercial trawlers. Twelve villages in the province, including his own, are now part of a network that aims to fend off illicit fishing boats.

Off the coast of Toong Noi, a picturesque village of 1,000 residents fringed by coconut trees and water, a half-submerged vessel lies testament to their militancy. Last December, Piya and some of the other village fishermen caught the boat fishing too close to shore and, by hooking its nets, forced it towards land. When the police came they found a gun, according to Piya, and the boat was impounded. As it was being maneouvred away to where it would be held, the local fishermen refused to show the captain how to navigate through the shallows and it was caught on a rocky breaker. The locals now laugh at it as they pass by.

“First we tell them to stop,” Piya says of trespassing boats. “If they don’t, I drop my anchor on their nets. I tell them that if they refuse to come ashore, we will drag them in.” The alternative for the interloping captains is to cut and abandon their nets: a costly exercise.

In a ThaiPBS documentary aired last year, Piya is seen radioing in to the police, telling them: “I’ve caught an illegal fishing boat, are you coming or not?”

Such an approach is not without risk. Some of the boat owners sue, claiming that Piya and others are robbing them and stealing their nets, while others threaten violence (in August, Piya was beaten after trying to raise awareness of illegal fishing operations in the area).

“Those in business still see money, so they take [fish] out whatever the long-term cost. When there is nothing left they will switch to something else, but people in small communities know the ocean is not just money, it is their lives,” he says. “What will happen in the future if nothing changes? The whole industry will collapse.”

In recent decades the Thai government has been promoting fish farms and other types of aquaculture (in 2010, aquaculture production in Thailand totalled about 1.4 million metric tonnes, versus 3.3 million tonnes of captured fish). The problem, however, is that aquaculture doesn’t seem to be a long-term alternative for Thailand, partly because trash fish (consisting of by-catch and undersized juveniles) caught from the sea are sold cheaply and used as feed in the fish farms.

“People think aquaculture is a good thing but it is not sustainable because it still takes from the sea,” says Sirasa.

In the small clam-fishing village of Kan Kradai, in the central province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, villagers are gathered in an informal circle to talk about the growing realities of the emptying seas. On the walls of the open, wooden hut are pictures of many of the species that have traditionally been found in the waters off Thailand. Villagers say many of those fish are no longer around.

“We also used to fish too much, but we see now that it won’t last,” says 38-year-old Sompong Parnnoi.

Huad Chidetrakulsangtong, an elderly fisherman missing his teeth and dressed in a dirty vest, says: “Our resources are being used up too fast. Technology and innovation are the real problems.”

No one in the circle has the answers, but what they do know is that everyone, especially the government, needs to do more to protect the seas before it is too late.

BACK ON THE BOAT OFF the coast of Phuket, Thamarat and his 20-man crew continue to search for their big catch. As the hours pass, however, it becomes clear that it is not going to happen tonight, as cast after cast comes in small and hours are spent circling, with Thamarat and his 22-year-old son watching the sonar for elusive signs of large shoals.

When we get back to the dock the following morning, their catch is just 500kg, most of it anchovies, which bring in just 15 baht a kilogram.

“I’ve been fishing since I was 10, first on my father’s boat and then my own – but I might be the last generation if the catches keep going like this,” says Thamarat.