The struggle for Phang Nga Bay



Posted on 23 September 1998  | 
Pham Nga Bay, Thailand: It is, some say, the most beautiful marine region in Southeast Asia  and you can see why. Craggy limestone monoliths rise majestically from the tranquil sea; divers from all over the world come to swim among the breathtaking tropical coral; and in the breeding season this gloriously lush area is host to leatherback, olive Ridley, and hawksbill sea turtles. Not only that, but the endangered dugong can frequently be seen throughout the year. Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand has everything.

It even has a James Bond connection. The ninth 007 film, The Man With the Golden Gun, was shot here back in 1974. For a few weeks, Roger Moore and Christopher Lee were counted among the locals.

But behind the glamour and the wealth of the flourishing tourist industry, all is not well. While 007 and the evil Scaramanga fought to the death in fantasy, Phang Nga Bay is something of a battle site in reality.

In this case, the villains are trawlers and other big ships that come to the bay under cover of darkness and hoover up countless tonnes of valuable and diminishing fish stocks. Pitted against them are a few hundred small-scale fishermen who, with their simple boats, eke out a meagre living from the sea during the day  as they have done for generations.

This is where WWFWorld Wide Fund For Nature's funding and expertise come in. Through Wildlife Fund Thailand we are working with 22 villages in the bay to coordinate their activities, to advise them on sustainable fisheries law enforcement and to help them manage their coastal resources, which often include mangroves and seagrass areas, explained Jerry Tupacz, WWF's project coordinator in the region. Our long-term aim is to protect all coastal resources within three kilometres of the coastline in southern Thailand, and to ensure that traditional fishermen survive.

Typical of the bay villages he visits frequently is Ta Kai on the small island known as Ko Yao Noi  a 40-minute boat ride, but a world apart, from the tourist honeypot of Phuket. Here, fishermen rise before dawn and take to the water for around six hours, depending on the heat of the day. The boats are modest and wood-built, some with a small nine-horsepower engine, and the nets cover no more than 30 square metres.

For the villagers, the issue is simple: if they don't have fish in their nets, they don't have rice in their stomachs. And more often than not, their catches are nothing to write home about. Sometimes a day's catch doesn't even fill a washing up bowl said Jerry Tupacz. If a fisherman can catch five kilos a day, that isn't bad  it'll sell for 400 baht (under #6). But compare that with a trawler skipper's haul worth 150,000 baht (#2,000) and you see the problem.The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the authorities largely turn a blind eye to the activities of the trawlermen. Despite a three kilometre zone in which mechanized, dynamite and cyanide fishing is forbidden, the law is ignored  not only because of the lackadaisical attitude of the few government patrols in the region, but also because if fines are applied, the skippers don't care: the penalty is a trifling 2,000 baht  under #30.

So it is for these reasons that WWF is working to strengthen local fishermen's organizations and support them in developing networks that will have effective negotiating powers. It is crucial, says Jerry Tupacz, that the fishermen themselves fully participate in the decision making process, because their very livelihoods are now at stake. Unless serious sorting out is done, the future of Ta Kai and villages like it is bleak. Already, many families are in debt because their income is modest and they have no savings; young men are leaving to find employment as far away as Bangkok, 900 kilometres away; and some young people who do stay are becoming drawn into a growing drugs culture.

But the tide may be turning. Thanks to WWF's funding and a dedicated team of local field workers, the project has forged an efficient network of local organizations, academics, and government officials that is helping the villagers understand about strength in numbers. They are steadily learning troubleshooting and planning skills, and how to use the right channels to approach central and regional government for funding. They are also discovering the difference between indignant confrontation and meeting officials calmly to work with them.

Jerry Tupacz believes that nature conservation and the preservation of traditional livelihoods are perfectly compatible, because the quantity and quality of the fishermen's catch is directly related to the quality of their environment. So with the right external support and skills, they and their families can look ahead to a positive future. WWF will be there, playing a full and active part.

(856 words)

*Peter Denton is Head of Publications at WWF-UK.

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