From Thailand’s southern tip to the capital; a group of marine conservationists and local fisherfolk travelled on boats for 14 days to protect the future of aquatic life and the country’s food security.
Every Thai child probably remembers the map of Thailand from the textbooks in school: Shaped like an axe with a long handle, flanked by two seas, the Gulf of Thailand on the right, and the Andaman Sea on the left.
The small province of Pattani sits at the southern tip on the Gulf of Thailand, known among Thais as “the axe handle.” The province is about 1,100 kilometres by land from Bangkok at the country’s centre. Travelling the distance by plane or car only takes a few hours or half a day. But by boat, the journey takes more than 14 days.
Two weeks before World Oceans Day on 8 June, four members of the Thai Sea Watch Association, dressed in outdoor clothes, gathered at their office in the deep south. Two cars were parked outside, packed with tents, medical kits, and campaign flags serving as backup transportation in case the sea gets too stormy for their boats.
“I have been working in fishing for twenty years. But this will be the longest boat journey in my life,” said Wichoksak Ronnarongpairee as he put down a jar of vitamin C supplements on the first night of the trip.
The association’s chairman is a small, quiet man with a light skin tone, unlike that of a fisherman. But the 50-year-old is no landlubber either, moving effortlessly on the boat. He has spent more than twenty years boarding the ships of local fishermen to protect the sea.
Besides vitamin pills and some herbal medicine, the crew did not prepare anything else because the journey was sure to be filled with plenty of food. The Thai Sea Watch Association is a non-profit organisation that has worked with more than 66 local fisherman groups across the country for forty years. On this trip, they used the boats of volunteer fisherfolk to travel while taking stops at several communities along the coast.
Their meals will be mostly seafood, especially dishes made with mackerel, a popular local fish and an affordable source of protein in Thailand. It can be prepared in various styles; pan-fried, cooked in curries, or sundried. Mackerel catches in the Thai waters have reached 130,000 tons yearly, more than any other fish. But it is uncertain how much longer the fish can be a staple in people’s diet because Thai mackerel populations are declining by nearly 20 percent annually on average.
The biggest threat is the popularity of the Thai mackerel itself and the increasing catching of juvenile fish. These young fish are supposed to be let grown into large fish so they can continue to reproduce. A study by the Department of Fisheries under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives found that the proportion of small fish in fishermen’s nets has increased steadily over the past five years. It is not only mackerel but also other juvenile fish. As a result, it is estimated that Thailand lost up to 100 billion baht (about USD 2.75 billion) in economic opportunity in just five years.
The government closes the Gulf of Thailand for a few months annually to allow mackerel to spawn and grow. But whether this time is enough for aquatic populations to recover is still a matter of debate.
Under the slogan “Save Mackerel Chilli Paste,” a popular national condiment, the group embarked on this long-distance boat journey. Along the way, they meet with local fisherfolk to discuss and then deliver their concerns about the future of the Thai mackerel to the country’s leaders in the capital.
Panare Beach, Pattani: The beginning of the conservation journey
Beautifully painted wooden boats float peacefully at the pier behind the local fish market in Pattani’s Panare district, the journey’s starting point. It is a Friday, and no one else is sailing today as it is the day to visit the mosque.
“On Fridays, no one goes fishing. If anyone disobeys, they will have to pay a fine,” explained Sama-ae Jemudau. People around here know him well and call him using the Malay term “Bae”. “Our Islamic teachers tell us that resources can be used by everyone. It’s okay if you catch fish for consumption or sell it for your family, but you should not destroy these resources.”
Sama-ae lives in a small house that hosts a famous Mataba restaurant in the area. The former chairperson of the Federation of Thai Fisher Folk Association was born and raised on the coast of Panare. He worked as a boat captain for years, catching enough fish to feed his family.
But about thirty years ago, the sea started changing. They caught less and less, and their fishing equipment often got damaged. Fishing dredges that collect various aquatic species from the seabed in large numbers became common in the area.
Sama-ae mobilised his community to oppose the fishing dredges. They soon learned that fish populations were not only dwindling in Panare, but it was also happening in all of Thailand’s 22 coastal provinces.
The majority of fisherfolk earn a living in traditional ways.They use fishing gears made from environmentally-friendly materials and choose to catch only certain species. In the 1960s, fishing gear technology advanced significantly, enabling fisherfolk to increase their daily catches.
Fishing equipment imported from abroad, made of durable, hard-to-break nylon material, started flowing into Thailand. Otter board trawls from Germany and pair trawls increased the efficiency of Thai fisheries, kicking off the rise of commercial fishing in the country.
But the trawling nets hauled in all kinds of sea creatures, the bycatch that traditional fisherfolk would usually throw back into the sea because people do not consume them, like smaller fish with lots of bones.
“The fishing gear villagers use are made from folk wisdom. They are often selective fishing gear, but commercial fishing gear is usually a catch-all type,” Sama-ae explained.
Thailand started promoting the use of trawlers and the expansion of fishing areas in the First Economic Development plan in 1957. Ten years later, local fisherfolk first noticed the depletion of fish stocks, kicking off a movement to protect the sea from overfishing.
In Panare, the fisherfolk community launched a learning centre to keep up with the development of fishing policies and regulations. Located next to a tea shop, the “Chao Lay School” became a popular hangout spot and served as a cooperative selling fishing nets and a kitchen where the women and girls would process seafood for sale.
In 1993 they founded the Federation Thai Fisherfolk Association (FTFA), with Sama-ae becoming its first chairman. Soon communities from other coastal areas joined, making the FTFA Thailand’s largest local fishing network.
“When we talked to other fishing communities, we understood each other well. We saw that many areas shared similar problems,” Sama-ae said.
Today, at the age of 68, Sama-ae went to see off the four members of the Thai Sea Watch Association at a small beach. Five traditional Kolae boats were awaiting them, floating in the water. The boat owners were prepared to send off the group on their conservation mission.
This atmosphere reminded Sama-ae of his adventures when he was a young man in his thirties. Back then, he took a similar trip up to Bangkok to petition the prime minister to ban the use of floodlights on fishing vessels, a method to attract swarms of small anchovy to the water surface. Earlier, the government had extended the catching periods of anchovies from day to night, which led to even more juvenile fish ending up in the nets.
But since the government did not listen to the fisherfolk then, juvenile fish continue to be at risk, Sama-ae said. “That’s why we need to have this trip,” he added while handing one of the guys a campaign flag imprinted with the slogan “Save juvenile aquatic animals”.
Near the coast of Suan Kong, Songkhla: pink dolphins and baby mackerel
A cigarette hanging from his lips, the fisherman’s hands were busy with hooks and small fish, no larger than a banknote. He was preparing bait to catch some seerfish at Suan Kong Beach, Chana District, Songkhla province, on the trip’s second morning.
After the boat left the shore, the fisherman pulled a gillnet from the stern with mackerel as baits. He cast the net, waited some time and pulled it back in. The captain slowed the engine and excitedly pointed his hand at the water surface a few hundred metres off the boat. A few pink bottlenose dolphins were playing beneath the water. They were probably looking for food, either seerfish or baby mackerels.
As the saying goes, big fish eat small fish, and juvenile fish play an essential role in marine ecosystems. As the primary consumers of phytoplankton and zooplankton and become a staple food for other larger fish. But too many juvenile fish are caught before they reach maturity.
Commercial fishing boats like trawlers and light-generating ships sweep up juvenile fish and other small aquatic species, such as mackerel, at the same time. But with similar size and appearance, most sellers and consumers often cannot distinguish between baby fish or small adult fish. As a result, in Thai markets, dried anchovies are often mixed with young mackerels without consumers knowing, according to news reports.
Adult mackerel can grow up to 16-20 centimetres in size, but commercial fishing boats often catch baby mackerel with a size smaller than 3-4 cm.
Baby mackerel are essential food for seerfish, a high-priced fish in Thai markets, and other marine animals such as the pink bottlenose dolphins.
When the small fish disappear, it affects the food chain and some species of fish will change their behaviour and start eating their own babies.
“I don’t think we can’t ban people from benefiting from the sea. But we can manage [fishing practices] to be [more] sustainable,” said Reungchai Tansakul, a biologist at the Prince of Songkla University.
He suggests setting fishing quotas based on a “maximum sustainable yield” assessment that determines how much fish can be caught to balance the interests of fisheries with the protection of marine ecosystems.
That day, the boat crew did not get to eat any seerfish. But even if their stomachs were empty, the sight of the pink dolphins filled them with delight, as well as the supporters who were watching the live broadcast through the association chairman’s mobile phone.
Dining table at sea: Food security in a challenging world
Wichoksak and the other conservation activists were right. They required nothing more than vitamin C because there was an abundance of food waiting for them at every stop. Steamed mackerel with rice, sardines in spicy yellow curry with turmeric, and sweet and salty dried fish – Kesarin Jelem, a 30-year-old Muslim woman, was one of the people who offered to serve dinner and replenish the supplies of the travellers in Nakhon Si Thammarat province.
Kesarin used to work as a housekeeper at a department store in a nearby town for many years. But with an eye disease, she could not tolerate the glare of the lamps all day. So she decided to help out on local fishing boats, putting the skills she learned from her father to good use, and then building a seafood processing business.
Most young people in her village find work outside the community these days. But Kesarin wanted to stay to develop a fishing business so there would be more career options.
One of her closest friends died in an accident while travelling for work in another province. “Her parents were divorced. Her father was quite poor and didn’t have a boat. So she didn’t continue her studies and had to go to work. It has always made us sad. Why was there no job for her to do here in our village?” she said sadly.
She developed a food processing group and sells the products online. Until today, the group has loyal customers from across the country and almost 20 local group members.
But Kesarin’s efforts to add value to aquatic animals might just be a drop in the ocean. Most of the marine animal processing in Thailand
focuses on the so-called “trash fish industry”. It takes leftover fish scraps or small fish with less meat and grinds them into surimi paste or animal feed used to feed ducks.
The trash fish industry began in Thailand in the early 1950s when the government set up a fishmeal factory near Chumphon to process bycatch and small, undersized fish. It became the starting point for the growth of today’s animal feed manufacturing.
In 2020, Thailand had a total aquatic animal production of 1.4 million tons, 27.9 percent of which are trash fish. It is a growing business sector, but it disguises the problematic impact on fish reproduction as baby fish are caught together with trash fish. For example, a study by the Department of Fisheries found that the catch of trawling boats in the Gulf of Thailand consists of more than 80 percent of juvenile fish.
In the same year, while the production of trash fish increased, mackerel populations had declined to a critical size. Only about 26,000 tonnes of mackerel were caught, while fishing boats brought in hundreds of thousands of tonnes in previous years. It was a decline of nearly six times in six years.
“It is obvious to the eye. Of course, there are many natural factors, such as global warming. But seeing baby mackerel in large piles of trash fish is an undeniable fact,” Wichoksak said.
The impact of catching juvenile fish can also be felt in the tourism industry, according to Asanee Wahab, a fisherwoman from Ban Hin Chang in Ranong province. The representative of the Andaman sea community joined the trip, excited to navigate a boat in unfamiliar waters all the way to Bangkok. At home, she usually takes tourists to see the local fishing lifestyle. Tourists visit her community to eat fresh seafood like banana shrimps, lobsters and sea basses.
“If we catch the young ones, it means we are going to cut down on the species of economic food fish,” Asanee said.
She is sometimes asked if seafood prices are rising because marine animals have become more scarce, which could generate more income for fisherfolk like her. But Asanee wants the sea to be full of fish so that her grandchildren can continue to make a living from the sea.
“We want our grandchildren to continue this fishing career. If we know how to preserve the resources, I think there is no job more fulfilling than fishing.”
According to information from the Thai Fishmeal Producers Association, the purchase price of trash fish in 2022 stands at around 8 baht/kilogram. However, when processed into fish meal, the average price is 30 baht per kilogram. At the same time, fresh mackerel doesn’t need to be processed, and the price stands at about 110 baht per kilogram.
The Thai Sea Watch Association estimates that the catching of juvenile fish caused a lost economic value from in the hundreds of billions of baht between 2016 and 2020.
Nakhon Si Thammarat: Crab banks and an unenforceable law
Plastic buckets tethered to oxygen tubes are lined up in a pavilion in Tha Phaya Village in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. It is a common sight along the coast of the South, where many communities have started conservation projects after noticing the depletion of marine resources.
This “crab bank” accepts horse crab eggs from fishermen to breed baby crabs before releasing them into the sea. As a result, the population of horse crabs in the area has grown again in recent years.
Village chief Prateep Namkhao supports conservation projects for juvenile marine species in the area. But sometimes, they cause conflicts within his fishing community in Pak Phanang bay.
Most marine conservation projects focus on banning specific fishing gear damaging the marine ecosystem. Around Pak Phanang Bay, which is a mangrove forest that nurses young aquatic animals, illegal fishing tools are still being used. Some fisherfolk disagree with the ban, while others support it.
“If there was a clear law banning the catching of young aquatic animals, it would stop all conflicts over the fishing gear,” said Soradech Khamkaew, who works at the Green South Foundation. He works with fishing communities across Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Thailand ranks among the top ten seafood exporting countries in the world. But importing countries have continued to question illegal fishing and the labour conditions on fishing boats. In April 2015, the European Union gave Thailand a “yellow card”, calling on the country to bring the fishing industry in line with international law. The government reacted by revoking a fishing law that had been in force for nearly seventy years and, as a result, was given a better rating in 2019.
The new fishing law includes a short article banning the catching of fish smaller than a specified size on fishing boats. However, seven years have passed since the law’s enactment, and the government has yet to announce the size specification.
“Local fisheries are ready to adapt if Thailand enacts this law. Give it a year to change. Just start with ensuring that people understand it. Issue incentive measures first, and then take more drastic measures like prosecuting people who break the law. After that, I believe people’s behaviour will change,” Soradech said.
Three oceans: Where the big fish eat the small fish
After more than ten days at sea, passing mangroves and muddy estuaries, small and large islands, they were sailing into the waters near the central provinces where the outlines of the factories and warehouses began to appear in the distance.
Samut Songkhram, Samut Sakhon and Samut Prakan: The provinces of the three Samut, or oceans in Thai, form a bay around the Gulf of Thailand. This is where adult mackerel migrate to and where the most trash fish is caught and processed in fishmeal factories.
Piya Thetyam, the chairperson of the Federation of Thai Fisherfolk Association, was holding the stern of the boat. Passing through these waters conjured bad memories of four men assaulting him at a local fish market in 2013. He had been advocating against using clam raking boats, and the fishermen accused him of having caused their arrest. But Piya refused to let the incident frighten him and continued his activism to protect the sea.
The Department of Fisheries reported that in 2021 Thailand had 51,237 local fishing boats (82.86 percent) and 10,595 commercial fishing boats (17.14 percent).
Piya believes that today, these roughly ten thousand commercial fishing boats are the main culprits in catching juvenile fish. Statistics of trash fishing in 2021 showed that otter board trawlers and pair trawlers caught around 200,000 tonnes of trash fish, while local boats, equipped with gear to target specific types of fish, such as anchovy falling nets and squid traps, only caught around the hundreds to thousands of trash fish.
The Environmental Justice Foundation, an environmental organisation from Europe, recently submitted a letter to the Thai government requesting to speed up the announced reduction of fish trawlers due to the destruction of the sea creatures they cause.
The Association of Commercial Fishing Boats Thailand objected to the proposal. In turn, they met with the prime minister, arguing that trawlers were legal in Thailand and widely used internationally. A request for comment from the association for this story was left unanswered.
“Today, there are fewer adult fish in the sea,” Piya said. “And the people most affected are small local fishing boat owners who cannot follow fish into the deep waters like large fishing vessels.”
But Amnuay Eua-areemit, the chairman of the Thai Fishmeal Producers Association, believes that stricter regulation on catching juvenile fish will unfairly affect the fishmeal industry and commercial fishing companies.
“It will definitely affect the fishmeal industry because it increases the costs faced by the fishing boats, which are already increasing, both in terms of labour and fuel.”
He explained that the industry produces more than 300,000 tons of fishmeal per year using unutilized marine fish to be ground into high-protein feed for shrimp or chicken farms in Thailand and abroad. Sixtyfive percent is made from cut fish scraps from the canned fish industry, while the other 35 percent is bycatch.
This 35-percent figure may include some juvenile fish as trawlers cannot avoid catching them, Amnuay acknowledged. But commercial fisheries are legally not allowed to catch near shore in the spawning grounds of aquatic animals. So the number of juvenile fish in the nets should be small.
“There is no boat that wants to catch trash fish because one kilo does not bring much profit. It’s just not worth it,” Amnuay said. “The fish used to make fishmeal are bycatch that can’t be avoided.”
Bangkok: It’s not just fishing boats
On the morning of World Oceans Day, the Chao Phraya River is bustling with speed boats carrying city people to work. They whiz by the wooden fishing boats, painted red and blue, that slowly float up the river to their final destination. Campaign flags flutter in the wind as the Thai Sea Watch Association group and their fishermen supporters make their way to the waterfront parliament building.
In an air-conditioned conference room inside the building, one of the group’s fishermen empties bags filled with small fried mackerel they had bought at a market into a big bucket. They are not offering the snacks to the men in suits standing around the room because the juvenile fish should not have been caught in the first place.
Despite the many policies Thailand implemented to protect juvenile fish, from restricting specific fishing gear to banning trawlers from spawning grounds, the problem persists.
Thana Chiravinij, Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, accepts the petition from the group. He explains that additional regulations need time because the government must gauge all stakeholders’ opinions first and ensure their rights are not violated.
Whose rights seem to be an essential question. “It seems the local fisheries are jealous of commercial fisheries that make more profits,” explained Wichoksak. “But I speak as a non-fisherman as well. This is about me. I should get to have a say because I benefit from the sea directly and indirectly. I want to be able to buy good and cheap seafood.”
Wichoksak and his group have the government a clear ultimatum: Enforce the law on protecting juvenile fish and restrict the percentage fishing vessels are allowed to catch within 30 days. Otherwise, the group would launch lawsuits against all related government agencies.
The Thai Sea Watch Association collected data and found that the central region and Bangkok are the largest market for young aquatic animals in the country, especially in supermarkets. But most consumers were unaware that they were eating juvenile animals, according to Wichoksak.
Throughout the journey from the southernmost point of Thailand to the centre of the country, Wichoksak and his fisherman friends repeated the same message they now delivered to politicians and reporters: When it comes to protecting the sea and aquatic animals, everyone is in the same boat.
“It’s not like the sea belongs to the fishermen, and they can keep other people from taking part in managing it. I’m not a fisherman. I don’t have a boat, but I am a co-owner of the sea.”
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.