The following story was based on a field trip organized as part of the first European Union Building Coastal Resilience (BCR) Forum in Chanthaburi, Thailand on February 28-March 2, 2012.
Six years ago, the 160 fishermen that live in Tha Ruea Klaeng - Aow Suan Son Community, Tha Ruea Klaeng Sub-district, Mueang District, Rayong on the Gulf of Thailand were in deep trouble. Commercial fishing boats using ever smaller mesh sizes had fished out their waters and the fishermen were deep in debt. Today, they catch more than even before, from a wider range of species, and make a profit of $30/day. The day before our visit, they caught seven large rays that they sold for $130.
How did this turnaround come about? In 2006, the local fishermen made two decisions. First, they banned the commercial boats from their traditional fishing grounds and second, they installed fish attraction devices in 15 semicircles each made of 20 devices located 1-5 km out to sea in depths of 8-10 meters. They only use fish hooks and traps; nets are banned. The fish attraction devices are made of palm fronds attached to a stick or bamboo pole and anchored with a bag of rocks. Cheap to make and easy to deploy, they make excellent spawning and nursery grounds. The combination of reduced demand (banning commercial fishing) and increased supply (installing fish attraction devices) has caused the recovery of the local artisanal fishing sector.
The local fishermen monitor the fish sanctuary from the shore. After the sanctuary was established, a commercial fishing boat used a push net to destroy some of the fish attraction devices. The village called the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) who arrested the captain and confiscated the boat. Commercial boats haven’t encroached since. The DMCR’s quick response was critical because it strengthened local confidence in the fish sanctuary and encouraged compliance with the new rules. The inability or unwillingness of governments to enforce the rules against outsiders is a key weakness of many community-based management systems.
Despite these positive changes, several issues remain. First, it is unclear if the increase in fish catch is due to an increase in fish stocks and/or displacement of fish toward the fish attraction devices. Second, the success of the fish sanctuary has encouraged locals to abandon farming and start fishing. Currently, fishermen can fish for as long as they want. But as demand increases, some form of managed access may be required. Finally, local success stories cannot disguise the fact that Thailand’s fishing industry suffers huge over-capacity. The government is trying to reduce capacity by buying back fishing boats (but this is expensive: the commercial boats we saw cost $300,000) and by encouraging the use of larger mesh sizes. Ultimately, these measures need to succeed if the industry is to move to a more sustainable footing. Community initiatives such as the one we saw in Rayong can buy time for national policies to take effect but they cannot substitute for them.
Author: Jake Brunner, IUCN’s Program Coordinator for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.