Despite facing violent confrontations from trawler crews, Piya Thedyam perseveres in rallying Thai fishing communities to defend the ocean against illicit fishing in a nation where written laws alone cannot stem the tide.
A group of sunburned fishermen hurried towards the shore after a long day out in the Gulf of Thailand. The coastline was already in sight, when Piya Thedyam’s eyes caught a glimpse of two trespassing trawling boats.
“Those trawlers have no business here!” exclaimed Piya over the deafening sound of the engine. “They’re too close, within three nautical miles!”
When they radioed the other boats, they only received the snappy reply that there were no laws prohibiting fishing in this area. But Piya knew better–after all he had been advocating for marine conservation for years. Trawling near the coastal zone of major spawning grounds was banned in 2004 to protect juvenile aquatic animals.
Gathering support from fellow local fisherfolks over the radio, Piya steered his boat back to confront the illegal fishers. He anchored his vessel directly above the net they were hauling. As ten other fishing boats joined him, they severed the trawlers’ net, prompting the offenders to flee.
Regulations to curb illegal fishing are in place, but the problem remains rampant, leading to overfishing, habitat destruction, and declines in biodiversity in the Gulf of Thailand. At great personal risk, Piya is leading over sixty local fishing communities across Thailand to safeguard the ocean. Recently awarded for his continuous dedication to defend the environment and human rights, Piya understands that written rules alone cannot protect the deep blue.
Fishy business models
Nestled along Thailand’s Gulf coast, Prachuap Khiri Khan is a vital hub for the fishing industry. The region is especially known for its abundance of mackerel, a staple in Thai cuisine, which migrate along the province’s coastline.
Most boys born into fishing families in the area are trained to work on board from a young age. As the second child in a low-income family, Piya knew that he wouldn’t continue schooling after tenth grade; instead, he would lend a hand at sea. But the pressure from his family to join the fishing trade became overwhelming, and he decided to rebel and no longer sail out with his family at the age of 14.
In a twist of fate, Piya landed a job in the very industry he sought to escape, working aboard the region’s commercial fishing boats. He quickly climbed the ranks, going from tying nets to becoming a foreman during his teenage years. At first, Piya believed that being part of the ship crew would grant him autonomy, but he quickly faced the stark truth.
Fishing crews toil relentlessly, their time at sea stretching anywhere from a couple of days to over a week. Piya quickly learned that he and his colleagues were subject to the whims of ship owners, who would claim about 30 percent of the profits –sometimes more, sometimes less– without setting foot on the vessel. Moreover, fishers were bound to sell their hauls to fish markets, which then transported and resold the goods to restaurants. Despite daily price fluctuations, fishermen only saw a monthly payout.
“We fished everyday but we never knew the sale price of our catch,” Piya recounted, reflecting on the fishing industry’s practices in the 1990s, which perpetuated the exploitation of workers. “That’s when I proposed to my fellow fishers that we unite and sell our catches directly to customers, bypassing the middleman.”
While Piya was held in high regard for his uncanny ability to track mackerel schools, his innovative business approach was met with apprehension. Resolute, he purchased catches from local fishers while keeping them apprised of daily rates. By 2011, his unique strategy evolved into a cooperative that now includes hundreds of community members. The Seafolks’ store in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Kuiburi district procures marine catches at competitive rates from environmentally-conscious fishermen and distributes the products to consumers.
In 1997, Prachuap Khiri Khan became part of the Western Seaboard development scheme, an initiative to industrialise the western side of the Gulf of Thailand and establish connections with Myanmar and the rest of the region. Three coal power plants, with a total output of 4,700 megawatts, were planned in the area.
Numerous communities, including the Kuiburi district led by Piya, united to oppose the projects. Located 20 kilometres away from the proposed plants, their primary concern was the potential disturbance to the coastal ecosystem, crucial to juvenile aquatic life and spawning grounds.
During this time, Piya forged bonds with other environmental rights defenders in his town, such as Charoen Wataskorn, the vocal leader of the movement. Tragically, Charoen was assassinated in 2004, a year after the coal power plants were cancelled.
To this day, no one has been held accountable for Charoen’s murder. While two gunmen were imprisoned, they eventually died in custody. Thailand continues to rank 13th globally in the number of environmental activists killed, a concerning trend that has persisted into this decade.
Korn-uma Pongnoi, the wife of the slain activist and a movement leader herself, recounted their struggle, “We are community leaders who have not been through official elections. Protecting the coast often puts us at odds with powerful interests.”
In response to the growing use of highly-efficient fishing gear like trawlers and dredgers, Thailand implemented new regulations in the early 2000s. However, illegal fishing remained prevalent. Witnessing the decline in clam populations and the damaging of traditional fishermen’s equipment by the dredges, Piya and his fellow local fishers founded the Thung Noi Local Fishing Association in 2008. They monitored the coast near their homes and pushed for better ocean regulations, successfully extending the no-clam-dredging zone from 1.6 to 3 nautical miles off the coast.
Frustrated with the authorities’ slow response, Piya and his associates sometimes pursued the outlaw fishers themselves. Trawler operators accused him of being a local mafia, a charge later dismissed at the police station with support from the community, who recognised Piya’s actions were in defence of the ocean.
Building trust among the local fishers was no easy feat. Piya recalled being offered a substantial bribe to cease his activism, a decision he discussed with his community. Rejecting the offer could have had fatal consequences. And Piya knew he had to be aware about the potential consequences of his actions.
Beaten up by the trawler mafia
One morning in August 2013, Piya was confronted by a group of men accusing him of causing their clam dredging to become illegal. They wore knuckle dusters and brutally attacked him at the pier in his hometown, shortly after he finished securing mackerel. His fisherfolk friends rushed to his aid, resulting in a chaotic brawl at the pier. Eventually, the assailants fled the scene.
Piya’s eyebrows, ears, and face were left bloodied, requiring four stitches to his brow. The next day, hundreds of community members rallied together, searching for the attackers. A large crowd gathered at the police station to show support for Piya. Korn-uma also attended, insisting that a lawyer from Bangkok would be brought in to resolve the conflict.
“Sticking together helps us face the threats,” said Piya. “They know that if one leader is down, someone else will rise up and continue the fight.”
The court ultimately sentenced the attackers to three months in jail. Meanwhile, the dredger owner–who also owned the fish pier where Piya and other fishermen docked after their fishing trips–agreed to a reconciliation with Piya under the supervision of the provincial governor.
As a result, the problematic clam dredger ceased illegal dredging operations and stopped managing the pier.
Breaking the cycle of conflict
Decades passed with incremental improvements in ocean regulations, but a significant breakthrough in combating illicit fishing occurred in 2015. The European Union, a major seafood buyer, issued Thailand a yellow card, urging the nation to reform and put an end to IUU fishing (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing), a widespread environmental crime. In response, Thailand revoked a fishing law that had been in place for nearly seventy years, leading to an improved rating in 2019.
Piya observed a decrease in illegal fishing, partly due to stricter regulations and vigilant monitoring by local fishing communities. However, many regulations remain unenforced, existing merely on paper. A glaring loophole exists in the prohibition of floodlights on fishing vessels. Despite regulations protecting coastal zones for breeding, Piya and other fishermen are aware of pirate fishers who skirt the edge of the zone, luring juvenile fish into their nets.
Determined to tackle this issue, Piya and the Federation of Thai Fisherfolk championed the cause of enforcing regulations on the minimum size of marine catches. This effort aimed to shield juvenile species from overfishing. Despite existing on paper for years, the regulations remained unimplemented. To push for tangible change, they embarked on a daring boat journey from southern Thailand to the parliament on World Oceans Day in 2022.
That same year, Piya was honoured with the annual human rights award from Thailand’s Office of the National Human Rights Commission for his relentless commitment to safeguarding the ocean.
Now in his fifties, Piya takes to the sea less often, entrusting his son to helm the co-op. Despite confrontations with shadowy figures, Piya’s dedication to ocean protection remains steadfast. Leading the Federation, which unites over 60 local fishing communities across Thailand, he channels his efforts into transforming national policy.
“We local fisherfolk will keep fighting against illegal fishing for our very lives,” said Piya. “We must revolutionise the regulations. Only then will I truly feel safe.”
Edited by Fabian Drahmoune
Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists.
Peerapon Boonyakiat is a freelance photojournalist based in Bangkok and works for Hong Kong based SOPA Images. He is interested in political stories involving conflict between the people and the government. His work can be found on Instagram @peerapon_boonyakiat.