Government must leave no room for dirty fishing

OpEd published in Bangkokpost, 20 December 2016, Tara Buakamsri – Thailand Country Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Thailand is holding its breath awaiting the European Union’s (EU) re-assessment of the country’s notorious fishing industry.

As the world’s fourth-largest seafood exporter, Thailand earns annual revenue of over US$6.5 billion (233 billion baht) from its fishing business. But in recent years, the country’s distant water fishing has been under the spotlight after a stream of reports exposed shocking human rights abuses linked to the supply chains of major global seafood producers. Despite recent reforms to Thailand’s anti-trafficking laws that came late last year, and the introduction of a vessel tracking system to curb illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) along with human rights abuses on ships in remote, unpoliced waters continue.

In order to avoid crackdowns in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, rogue Thai fishing vessels have shifted to operate in the environmentally fragile Saya de Malha Bank off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean since late last year, according to a new report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia which tracked fleet movements between 2014 and 2016. In this area, these Thai fleets continue to fish and transship catches at sea without authorisation, deploy catastrophically unsustainable fishing methods, and crew vessels with victims of trafficking and forced labour in deplorable working conditions.

Of the 15 survivors interviewed by Greenpeace, half of them experienced physical abuses while working on board the vessels. They were kicked or hit by ship captains. In some cases, the abusers used weapons like wooden bats and knife-sharpening stones to beat them. One of the main reasons for beatings was illness, especially when there was insufficient food on board and exhausted crew members would sneak off to rest.

Poor nutrition, coupled with extreme physical labour, led to reported outbreaks of Beriberi disease, with six reported fatalities. At the heart of this tragedy lies a complex web of ownership structures within the Thai distant water fishing and seafood processing sectors.

In migrating to the Saya de Malha Bank, the Thai fleets have shifted to an ecologically rich and sensitive area essentially devoid of effective management and controls on bottom fishing.

Transshipment at sea is central to the current Thai business model, and maintaining fishing fleets in the distant Saya de Malha Bank requires routine journeys by reefer of over 7,000km to deliver supplies (and sometimes trafficked workers) and pick up fish, that has been reported to include a 50% by-catch of sharks. Transshipments at sea also make it possible for fishing vessels to stay out in the ocean indefinitely, out of sight and out of reach of enforcement.

Greenpeace investigations into nefarious activities aboard fishing vessels operating in the Saya de Malha Bank revealed that trafficking, exploitation, abuse, negligence and IUU fishing have remained central to the operations of some Thai overseas fishing companies. With the return of reefer-assisted Thai overseas fishing, it is arguably only a matter of time before dirty and scandalous business models are exported again elsewhere.

Seafood from the Saya de Malha Bank has continued to flow into the supply chains of major Thai companies producing for global export markets. The entry of seafood tainted by human rights abuses and IUU fishing into the supply chains of companies — including major global brands — that distribute products around the world, highlights the need for stronger traceability systems and greater transparency in procurement practices.

With the yellow card status given by the European Union, still haunting Thailand, and an inspection under way, the government cannot afford to lose face again. It needs to come up with a resolution to monitor and keep its rebellious fishing industry in check, and turn the tide to eradicate destructive and exploitative fishing for good.

Inspections are an integral part of Thailand’s ongoing efforts to tackle human rights abuses and IUU fishing. But to weed out the bad operators, the government should improve inspection frameworks and intelligence-sharing efforts with other countries and civil society.

In the case of the fleets at the Saya de Malha Bank, Thailand’s temporary controls on overseas transshipment at sea are far from enough. These controls should be permanent, with additional scrutiny applied to transshipments at sea, and policies that move towards eliminating the practice altogether. The government must meanwhile fulfil its responsibilities as a flag state and ensure that appropriate management and conservation measures are in place and applied to fishing operators in the Saya de Malha Bank.

With increasing dependence on migrant workers at home, and negative press about human rights violations by international watchdogs, Thailand needs policies that ensure foreign workers are always treated with dignity. Such safeguards are necessary to protect workers on board fishing vessels.

Producers, buyers, industry associations and consumers have the power to squeeze the tainted fish out of the market. Responsibility ultimately, however, rests with the industry. The fact that fish caught by exhausted men (potentially victims of forced labour) dying of archaic diseases still have a high chance of entering some of the globe’s best-known cat food brands underscores the need for improved traceability systems.

Thailand is entering a new chapter as a nation. It is on the threshold of making real progress toward the elimination of dirty fishing and human rights abuses from its seafood supply chains. But, without sustained scrutiny, resolute controls, and true accountability within the Thai overseas fishing sector, hard-won reform risks sliding into irrelevance. Private, public and third sector stakeholders, both inside and outside of Thailand, all have a responsibility to work together to ensure only sustainably and ethically produced Thai seafood reaches shelves, freezers, sushi bars and cat bowls around the world.

บันทึกจาก Copenhagen — กลองแซมบ้า

วันนี้ เป็นวันเดินรณรงค์ทั่วโลก Global Day of Climate Action ที่โคเปนเฮเกน ขบวนจะเริ่มที่บริเวณ Christiansborg Slotsplads หรือ จัตุรัสรัฐสภา ผู้คนกว่า 100,000 คนจากกว่า 130 ประเทศทั่วโลกมาร่วมกันเดินขบวน เรียกร้องให้เกิดข้อตกลงโลกร้อนที่เป็นธรรม เข้มข้น และมีผลบังคับทางกฎหมาย มีตำรวจ อยู่รายรอบเต็มไปหมดและมีเฮลิคอปเตอร์บินตรวจสถานการณ์บนฟ้าเหนือหัวอยู่ 2 ลำ

samba drum

ช่วงเที่ยงของวัน อุณหภูมิติดลบ 2 องศาเซลเซียส ผมรีบมุ่งหน้าไปยังจัตุรัสรัฐสภา เพื่อร่วมขบวนด้วย จนประมาณบ่าย 2 ขบวนจึงเริ่มเดินมุ่งหน้าไปยัง Bella Centre ผมเข้าร่วมในกลุ่มอาสาสมัคร Greenpeace ร่วม 200 คน ที่ใส่เสื้อเขียวสดใสเขียนว่า “Act Now, Change the Future” หรือ ลงมือทำเดี๋ยวนี้ เพื่อเปลี่ยนแปลงอนาคต บางคนก็ชูป้ายข้อความอื่นๆ ตลอดทั้งขบวนก็มีการเต้นรำ ตีกลอง ส่งเสียงกันอึกทึกครึกโครม ผมก็ร่วมเต้น กระโดดขึ้น กระโดดลงไปกับบรรยากาศที่หนาวเหน็บด้วย

ผมเองเคยร่วมขบวนรณรงค์มาก็เยอะ กว่า 20 ปีแล้ว แต่ครั้งนี้นับเป็นขบวนรณรงค์โลกร้อนที่ใหญ่ที่สุดที่ผมเคยเข้าร่วม มีองค์กรเข้าร่วมกว่าร้อยองค์กรทั้งที่เกี่ยวกับสิ่งแวดล้อม การพัฒนา ศาสนา แรงงาน เยาวชน และกลุ่มการเมือง และที่ในโคเปนเฮเกนนี้กลุ่มที่เข้าร่วมที่สำคัญได้แก่ Greenpeace, Oxfam, 350.org, Avaaz, IndyAct, ActionAid, DanChurch Aid, WWF Denmark, Climate Justice Action เป็นต้น

บนเวทีก่อนที่ขบวนจะเริ่มเดิน มีเหล่านักพูดมาพูดด้วยถ้อยคำที่กินใจกับฝูงชน แล้วพอประมาณบ่ายสองโมงขบวนก็เคลื่อนออกจากจตุรัสรัฐสภามาจนถึงท่าเรือ Nyhavn ผมก็มองเห็นเรือ Arctic Sunrise ซึ่งจอดอยู่ที่โคเปนเฮเกนเรือจอดอยู่ตั้งแต่การประชุมเริ่มซึ่งเป็นส่วนหนึ่งในการรณรงค์ของกรีนพีซเพื่อผลักดันให้เหล่าตัวแทนการเจรจาบรรลุข้อตกลงทางกฎหมายให้ได้ และมีป้ายใหญ่เขียนว่า “Politicians Talk, Leaders Act“ หรือ ”นักการเมืองดีแต่พูด แต่ผู้นำลงมือทำ”

ขบวนเคลื่อนมาเรื่อย จนถึงสี่โมงครึ่ง ฟ้าเริ่มมืดแล้ว บางส่วนของขบวนก็มาถึงบริเวณ Sundby ซึ่งผมสามารถมองเห็นกังหันลมผลิตกระแสไฟฟ้าขนาด 1 MW ที่ตั้งอยู่ด้านหลัง Bella Centre

วนัน เพิ่มพิบูลย์ เพื่อน NGO คนไทยที่มาร่วมประชุมด้วย เล่าให้ฟังว่า เมื่อมองออกมาจาก Bella Centre เห็นฝูงชนจำนวนมหาศาลทีเดียวที่มาร่วมสร้างความหวังและความเป็นหนึ่งเดียว ผู้เข้าร่วมประชุมคนอื่นๆก็ออกมาดูฝูงชนกันด้วยความทึ่งเหมือนกัน

กลุ่มภาคประชาสังคมไทยที่ไปร่วมการประชุมที่โคเปนเฮเกน ก็มาร่วมขบวนด้วย เล่าให้ฟังว่า ตรงด้านหน้าขบวนนั้นเคลื่อนกันเร็วมาก เหลือช่องว่างให้ตำรวจเข้ามาแทรกได้ ซึ่งตำรวจก็จับกุมตัวเหล่านักประท้วงไปได้หลายร้อยคนทีเดียวในวันนั้น

อ่านฉบับภาษาอังกฤษที่นี่
เขียนโดย ธารา บัวคำศรี
แปลและเรียบเรียง สุรัจนา กาญจนไพโรจน์

บันทึกจาก Copenhagen — สถานีกู้วิกฤตโลกร้อน

คนจำนวนมากยังคงยืนเข้าคิวรอการลงทะเบียนเพื่อเข้าไปใน Bella Center อยู่ ผมพบปะผู้คนทุกวันที่มีแนวคิด อุดมการณ์และวิสัยทัศน์ต่อการแก้ปัญหาโลกร้อนและผลที่จะออกมาจากการประชุม COP 15 ที่คล้ายๆ กัน ผู้คนกว่า 25,000 คนจากทั่วโลกหลั่งไหลกันมาเพื่อเป็นพยานในการประชุมในครั้งนี้ รวมทั้งผู้นำประเทศอีกกว่า 110 คนด้วย ไม่ต้องสงสัยเลยว่าระบบรักษาความปลอดภัยจะเข้มงวดขนาดไหน โดยเฉพาะตรงทางเข้า Bella Centre และที่ผมชอบก็เห็นจะเป็น ทีวีจอใหญ่มหึมาตรงทางเข้า ที่ฉายเรื่อง Climate Defender Camp ที่อินโดนีเซียด้วย

เมื่อผ่านเข้ามาใน Bella Centre แล้ว สิ่งที่น่าสนใจจุดหนึ่งที่ผมอยากเข้าไปชมมากที่สุดก็คือ Climate Rescue Station (CRS) หรือ สถานีกู้วิกฤตโลกร้อน ซึ่งกลุ่ม NGO ที่เป็นสมาชิกของ Global Campaign for Climate Action หรือ GCCA ร่วมกันจัดขึ้น โดยมีกิจกรรมตลอดช่วงการประชุม ทั้งการแสดงภาพถ่าย การอภิปรายพูดคุย ฉายภาพยนตร์ แล้วยังมีกาแฟฟรีให้ดื่มกันทุกเช้าอีกด้วย
CRS_COP15
Climate Rescue Station (CRS)  ก็มีประวัติอยู่เหมือนกัน โดยเริ่มในปี 2551 ที่เมืองพอซนาน ประเทศโปแลนด์ ในครั้งนั้น สถานีตั้งอยู่ตรงพื้นที่ขอบเหมืองที่ใหญ่ที่สุดในยุโรปเพื่อรณรงค์และเปิดโปงต้นทุนที่แท้จริงของถ่านหิน ตำแหน่งตรงขอบเหมืองก็เสมือนการใช้ถ่านหินเป็นตัวการหลักที่ผลักดันให้เราเข้าสู่ขอบหรือห้วงโค้งสุดท้ายของโลก เหล่านักกิจกรรมของ Greenpeace ได้ร่วมกับชุมชนและนายกเทศมนตรีในการเรียกร้องให้เกิดการปฏิวัติด้านพลังงานและเรียกร้องพลังงานสะอาดในเมืองพอซนานด้วย

และในช่วง COP 14 สถานีนี้ก็ย้ายไปที่เมืองมาดริด ประเทศสเปน และเป็นกิจกรรมส่วนหนึ่งในการฉลองครบรอบ 25 ปี ของ Greenpeace สเปน มีการจัดกิจกรรมสาธารณะและนิทรรศการมากมาย เพื่อให้ความรู้เรื่องผลกระทบจากโลกร้อนต่อสเปน เป็นสถานที่จัด Concert การอภิปรายพูดคุยทางการเมือง และเป็นศูนย์เพื่อการศึกษาให้กับเด็กๆ เรื่องพลังงานหมุนเวียน

และการจัดที่เมือง Glastonbury ในประเทศอังกฤษ ช่วงเดือนมิถุนายน 2551 มีนิทรรศการและเป็นศูนย์ข้อมูลเกี่ยวกับการรณรงค์ของ Greenpeace ประเทศอังกฤษที่กำลังต่อต้านการสร้าง runway ที่สนามบิน Heathrow และการสร้างโรงไฟฟ้าถ่านหินใหม่ในอังกฤษ

และผมก็มีโอกาสได้เห็นผู้อำนวยการบริหารของ Greenpeace International คุณ Kumi Naidoo คำพูดที่กินใจ และนิทรรษการภาพถ่ายที่น่าทึ่งด้วย

ผมยังได้แนะนำเพื่อนคนไทยที่มาร่วมประชุมที่นี่ ให้เข้ามาเยี่ยมชมสถานีนี้ นอกจากจะมีกาแฟฟรีให้ดื่มแล้ว ยังใช้เป็นที่หลบหลีกจากความวุ่นวายและการถกเถียงอันยาวนานของ COP15 อีกด้วย

อ่านฉบับภาษาอังกฤษที่นี่ บันทึกวันที่ 3 และ บันทึกวันที่ 4
เขียนโดย ธารา บัวคำศรี
แปลและเรียบเรียง สุรัจนา กาญจนไพโรจน์

Is Thailand Walking on Sunshine?

Commentary by Tara Buakamsri

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There is some wonderful news in Thailand. We are going to go solar.

Earlier this month on January 5th, the National Reform Council (NRC), with an overwhelming 206 votes in favour, passed the resolution on a solar rooftop expansion scheme. Over the next 5 years, solar rooftop module will be installed for 500,000 households with a total installed capacity of 5,000 megawatts (MW). In the next 20 years, the plan seeks to double the total amount of installed capacity from 5,000 to 10,000 MW. This could very well represent a massive step forward for renewable energy in our country.

If the Thai government stays on track and continues to actively promote investment in the renewable energy industry, including solar PV module production, Thailand can look forward to a future as a green leader, and ASEAN’s champion in the area of renewable energy.

There are still logistical hurdles to the newly approved solar roof system though. The residential Feed-in Tariff (FiT) still needs to receive Cabinet approval this month. Even after this obstacle is overcome, the implementing agencies – the Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA), the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA), the Energy Ministry, and the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) – will need to work hard to make this plan a reality, and not a lifeless paper tiger. Some of them, like EGAT, have a history of supporting fossil fuels, and it is unclear if they will truly embrace renewables.

Moreover, the devil is in the details: information about applicable rates and system sizes in this new scheme has not yet been made public. Regulations and criteria for the scheme must be made public. There is also still no official confirmation that applicants will be able to register through a one-stop service.

It will also be crucial to see, in practice, who benefits from this new scheme, and to make sure that those people least able to pay are prioritized. Household users should likewise remain first priority, rather than big businesses like importers of the solar materials and operators. So far, all this remain to be seen. The scheme should further give rates that are attractive and fair to homeowners so that they can sell the leftover electricity to the authorities at a good price.

What the government has proposed is in essence a net metering scheme – but such schemes vary enormously from country to country. Some are far more generous with homeowners (which encourage solar ownership and development) whereas others are stingier with homeowners and actually benefit utilities. The former is what Thailand needs right now.

Lastly, for this scheme to create a solar movement in Thailand and serve as a tipping point, the geographic distribution of the solar panels will be important. Will they be spread nationwide and their impact diluted? Will they be concentrated in groups of highly visible communities to serve as a kind of living, concrete showcase for solar energy?

Energy Reform Committee Chairman Dr. Thongchat Hongladaromp and Chairman of the National Reform Council (NRC) subcommittee on renewable energy Alongkorn Ponlaboot, both spoke optimistically about this project, talking about its expansion in schools, factories and government offices after 10 years. But the real question must be, how can this scheme boost a true renewable energy revolution in Thailand?

This is a litmus test to see exactly how green our future will be. The next step for Thailand’s NRC is to ensure that a Renewable Energy Law is passed by the parliament this year. This is vital to ensure a proper, just, fair and sustainable supporting mechanism for clean, renewable energy development.

Analysts are also eagerly awaiting news to see if Thailand will be the first ASEAN nation to launch a green bank (as Germany did with the KfW Development Bank or Connecticut with the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority). A green bank would use limited public funds to attract private funds that together would promote low-cost, long-term financing support to renewable energy projects. In the end, every public baht supports many more bahts of private investment, for example, by guaranteeing certain rates of return to private investors.

So, while we welcome this progress towards renewable energy, we hope we will maintain these steps forward so Thailand can really lead the green development in Southeast Asia.

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Tara Buakamsri is Thailand Country Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia and can be contacted at tara.buakamsri@greenpeace.org

A slight catch: Thailand’s overfishing crisis

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
overfishing

DAWN SEES TRAWLER FISHERMEN IN PHUKET SORT THE PREVIOUS NIGHT’S CATCH.

POST MAGAZINE
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.

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