STORIES

Netting the evidence: Thai fisherfolk fight oil spills with data

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Luke Duggleby and Panumas Sanguanwong

They have been sailing out at dawn, feeling at ease on their boats for as long as they can remember, but lately, the sea has grown strange and unfamiliar. 

A fisherman like Tiraj Bunyong, who spends every day out off the east coast of Thailand, believes he knows a thing or two about the ocean. But recently, the familiar waters have brought a strange sense; he barely catches any fish, and the ones in the nets have black stains in their gills.

“Probably from the oil spill,” he says, repeating what many fishermen in Rayong have suspected these past few weeks.

This morning, Tiraj steers his family’s fishing boat to join a protest out in the sea. He slows down the engine and turns the boat to face the shoreline. An armada of small fishing boats confronts the looming skyline of factories. Somewhere there on the coast, his father is leading protesters to the oil company that caused the recent oil spill.

The Bunyong family lives in Rayong’s Pak Nam sub-district, only a few footsteps away from the beach and 15 kilometres from the Map Ta Phut Industrial Port, the biggest petrochemical industrial zone in Thailand. 

Only a few hours’ drive from Bangkok, seaside Rayong was mostly known for its seafood and Thai-friendly-priced beaches. But in 1982, industrial plants took over the province’s image when it became part of the eastern coast development project. 

Since then, the local fishermen have been observing changes in the environment. Industry and government representatives reassured them that their livelihoods were safe, but they could see with their own eyes that something was not right ills

Souvenirs from a sick sea

In front of his small house, Lamom Bunyong pulls something out from a collection he has been keeping for almost ten years. It is a ziplock bag full of dried crude oil with dates scribbled on top. 

“A souvenir,” Lamom teases. He has been living with the oil spill disasters long enough to make fun of it.

As the patriarch of the family and a leader of the Pak Nam local fishermen group, Lamom, in his seventies, knows well what he needs to do when an oil spill happens. It’s not the result of training but comes from witnessing pollution disasters again and again. 

January is the season for cuttlefishes and crabs to follow the current to the Rayong bay for their main food source, krill. But on the 25th of that month this year, instead of fresh seafood, the fishermen returned to shore with ruined fishing gear. Everything was slathered with black goo after a pipeline 20 kilometres off the coast leaked 47,000 litres of crude oil into the sea. 

The pipeline is operated by Star Petroleum Refining Company (SPRC), an American-Thai enterprise jointly owned by Chevron and the Thai public, holding 60 percent and 40 percent of shares respectively. 

Soon the eastern shore was swarming with hundreds of workers in white jumpsuits cleaning up the crude oil washed ashore while out on the sea, ships were spraying dispersant chemicals to push the oil down to the seafloor. The accident swept away the tourists from the once busy beaches, wiping out the income of fishermen and restaurants. 

The exact size of the impact is hard to pin down. First, it was reported that 400,000 liters had leaked into the sea, then the number was corrected several times until it ended up tenfold less. It raised suspicion in the public and environmental activists pointed out that the number did not seem to align with the amount of dispersant used.

Lamon and the local fisherfolks remember a similar situation, nine years ago, during Thailand’s most notorious oil spill. The incident drew public attention, for the first time, to the dangers of the petroleum industry.

Ten days after the spill in 2013 the oil company and Rayong Provincial Office announced the success of the clean up. At first, the water quality was normal, but a few months later, the monsoon waves spit black balls the size of beads, known as tarballs, onto the beaches. They kept showing up years after.

It was when Lamom and other fishermen suspected that the ocean was still sick. They found small cuttlefish bones showing that the hatchlings had died at an irregular early age. Sometimes they saw deformed fish with white-spotted blind eyes. 

Their observations were later confirmed by a scientist. Renu Vejaratpimol, then a biologist at Nakhon Pathom’s Silpakorn University, spent days collecting samples with the fishermen and a local environmental group. 

The lab results of the fish blood showed contamination with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), a component of crude oil that accumulates in marine animal tissue, sometimes causing DNA mutations. It has been linked to cancer and other diseases.

“This is apparent and scientifically proven evidence because marine animals are biological indicators,” Renu explains. “Our concern is that the spill has affected the surrounding environment and all the marine life that has a significant role in our food chain.”

Dangerous undercurrents

Fisherfolks in Rayong bay are a tight-knit bunch, always ready to help one another and share sightings of schools of fish. But since the oil spills started happening, they let each other know when they spot something unusual. 

“We have eyes all around,” says Lamom as he teaches a friend to use a smartphone to send images of thin-film interference, like rainbows on the water surface. “We used to hold fishing nets and now we are holding cameras.”

Nine years ago, the fishermen needed to return to the oil sighting’s location with a camera. But today, they are using their smartphones to take photos and record videos, sending them out through messaging applications.

Nawarat Thoopbusha, 48, a fishing gear shop owner in Pak Nam, knows many fishermen and seafood sellers in Rayong. Since 2013, she has been the focal point of the efforts to collect evidence of irregular marine life. She categorises the footage and sends it to lawyers in Bangkok via chat groups to be used as evidence in court.

As photos and videos kept rolling in, the locals realised the scope of the oil spill’s impact on the sea. So they teamed up with environmental groups to systematically collect evidence and brought the issue to court.

“It started with only a few community leaders, but now, more people are seeing that the evidence can help them claim their rights,” says Weerawat Ob-o, a lawyer with the Community Resources Centre, a legal aid group, who has been working with the Rayong fishermen since the first spill. “Some believe the impact [of the oil spill] is gone. But with the evidence people are collecting, they are becoming aware that the problem isn’t over.”

Not only in Rayong but all across Thailand, local communities have been turning to citizen science as a tool to understand and document the impact of development projects and pollution disasters in their hometowns. 

“First I didn’t care about the spill, but later on I realised that I’m also affected,” Nawarat says, pointing out that the oil spill has impacted many sectors in the province.

“It affects the fishermen, the seafood restaurants and processors, the hotel owners and so on. Not to mention consumers as seafood prices are rising so much because the fishing boats have to travel further. Sometimes you buy Rayong seafood, but it’s actually from a nearby province.”

During this year’s oil spill, the company set up a complaint centre at a local hotel where affected locals could register for primary relief fund. A month later, it closed the registration process with 13,000 registrations from local fishermen and other occupations. 

Two weeks after the spill, the company had still not paid any relief fund. Hundreds of people from Pak Nam and surrounding neighbourhoods gathered at the oil company headquarters. 

“The company will not escape. It’s clear that we will take responsibility for causing the spill,” Jirasak Mahasukon, human resources manager of the oil company told the locals.

The company agreed to pay 45,000 baht (about USD 1,300) to affected fishermen, less than what the locals have assessed the impacts. In late February, the company began paying the first group of affected people.

“We collect our own information even when the officials are done with it. I think they don’t want to know the full impact because they don’t want to do anything more” Nawarat says.

Hopes for curing the ocean

Banjerd Luangpoen, a sun-burned fisherman, stood in front of a judge, holding a bag of fresh fish. The sand whitings, a common species in the Rayong bay, were collected off the coast of his hometown in Tapong district. But the ones he presented to the judge looked strange; they were swollen with red bruises. 

“Sand whitings are peaceful animals,” Banjerd says. “We asked the local marine research centre to check what’s wrong. They said these fish had attacked one another.”

In 2014, one year after the oil spill, Banjerd and hundreds of other fishermen launched a lawsuit suing the company and the Thai government for failing to fulfil its duties to take the polluter accountable. 

They argued the oil spill cleanup did not follow international guidelines and the dispersant chemicals had turned the sea toxic. For months, they had collected evidence and drew up a rehabilitation plan with help from an environmental group. 

But the court rejected their argument and ruled that the impacts of the 2013 oil spill lasted for only one year. The fishermen appealed, and the case is pending with the Supreme Court. It is the first legal case over an oil spill in Thailand and likely to set a precedent. 

After the ruling, the fishermen continued collecting evidence. Photos taken right after the oil spill up to 2019, six years after the incident, show the disaster’s lasting impact.

“There still is no clear decision whether the 2013 spill has been properly resolved or not,” says the fishermen’s lawyer, Weerawat. “The locals are showing that the sea is still sick and they are still bearing the burden.”

For Banjerd and the other fishermen, the oil spills in 2013 and 2022 bear an unsettling resemblance, from the ambiguity surrounding the amount of oil leaked into the sea to the authorities’ refusal to accept evidence of continuing impact on marine life.

Banjerd’s group has been calling for an independent committee to transparently study the impacts and solutions as well as the creation of an oil spill fund in Thailand as they undeniably predict more spills coming in the future. 

“Throughout all these years of fighting, I realised that we have as much ownership rights in the natural resources,” Banjerd says. “But our rights are being violated.”

Realising the struggle for communities’ rights to participate in natural resources management extends beyond his hometown, Banjerd shares his experiences with other groups facing similar issues. One of them is a community of fisherfolks in Songkhla’s Chana district in southern Thailand, where a petrochemical industrial estate is planned.

Living with industry

Two weeks later, another major oil spill from the same pipeline came on the heels after the first incident. Today, in April 2022, the operation to retrieve the leaked pipeline was just recently finished and some tarballs were found washed ashore according to the company. It’s unclear how much oil has contaminated the sea, but it is allegedly worse than the spill back in 2013.

A month after the disaster, the government organised a kick-off ceremony of the third page of the Map Ta Phut pier construction which will expand the eastern region pier’s capacity to store more natural gas.

Losing 1,000 rai of sea area off the coast, the local fishermen took their boats out to rally against the expansion of the port. Amid their expectation to take the issue to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the president of the ceremony, the ceremony was abruptly changed to an online event. 

“The policymakers like to say that there are not many local fishermen affected by the expansion,” says Tiraj, as he is holding the rudder of the fishing boat that the Bunyong family has been taking out to sea for two decades.    

His 18-year-old son, Max, stands next to him. “We are here to show that there are more of us than what they claimed.”

After the 2013 spill, Tiraj stopped fishing and took a security guard job at a grocery store for a few years. He enjoyed the stability of consistent paychecks, but missed the free-spirited life of a fisherman and, though inconsistently, the ocean also pays him better.

After a former employee asked him to return, he’s come back to the sea and now spends every weekend with his son on the boat. Despite the jealousy of his classmate, Max’s proud of being the only kid in his class that knows how to fish.

“I’m studying engineering and want to work in one of those factories. But I also don’t want to give up fishing,” Max says. “It’s more secure to work in a factory because the sea is not abundant anymore. Anyway, it’s been decided that the factories are here.”

Despite the controversies, for Max the oil spills are just one of the risks of living with the industry, and raised the question of how communities can coexist with factories.

“People like to say there are two sides of a coin. Here in Rayong, they thought that it’s either industry or fishermen. But isn’t there also the coin edge which is in between those two oppositions?” Banjerd asks. “We’re willing to take care of the ocean together with the industry, but it needs to be truly fair and inclusive.”

In 2009, the National Environment Board declared Map Ta Phut Industrial estate a ‘pollution controlled zone’ following the court order filed by the Rayong locals years before. The designation is supposed to minimise health impacts in the area. But so far no measures have been implemented and the recent rumours of abolishing the pollution controlled zone again to expand the industry have left people in Rayong with concerns. 

Another concern is how much the communities know about the neighbouring industries. In 2021, environmental advocates turned in the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) draft to the Parliament, an environmental law used in 36 countries worldwide, creating an open-access database about industrial facilities’ release of pollutants. 

“This law is very important. In normal situations, people will know what factories are in their neighbourhoods and what the risks are,” says Penchom Saetang from Ecological Alert and Recovery – Thailand (EARTH), an environmental group that has been pushing for the transparent pollution data system.

“In case of accidents, the disaster mitigation team will know how to react rapidly and directly.”

The new legislation aims to settle the long-standing debate surrounding oil spills or other industrial accidents. In three decades, there have been at least 200 oil spills in Thailand according to Greenpeace. However, the PRTR draft was turned down by the prime minister in July 2021 without explanation.

“This year’s oil spill is probably the biggest in Thai history but what we can say now is only based on guessing because the basic information has not been revealed,” Penchom says. “Thailand needs a system to gain back trust between people and the industries.”

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. 

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based photographer. He regularly works on stories related to the environment and the impact of pollution and development on local communities.