Get Adobe Flash player

Traditional fishing lifestyle in south Thailand under threat

Sample Image
by Claire Truscott*

Idling on the muddy sands of Thailand's coastal deep south, fishing boats hand-painted in lurid primary colours languish while their owners look on helplessly.
Traditional fishing, once a thriving industry in southern Pattani and Yala provinces, has been reduced to a dwindling niche activity as fishermen lose out to large commercial firms and soaring fuel prices.
The troubles in the industry compound the problems faced in this mainly Muslim region, where separatist unrest has claimed more than 3,300 lives in the last four years, with no resolution in sight.
One Pattani fisherman, Ramly, 47, says he cannot afford to take his boat out to sea and is forced to resell bags of shrimp caught by commercial operators to feed his five children.
"Normally I stay at home and buy some shrimp from the others to sell again because petrol is expensive," he told AFP.
He hopes his children will use the education offered by a free school near his village, which is sponsored by the king, to get other work.
"I think if my children can learn at school they can find other work. I'm not sure if there will be any fishing left in 10 years because of the fuel price. People will have to become construction workers or go to Malaysia to find work there," he said.
Commercial fishing fuels the woes in these villages as experts say the large operations fish the waters illegally using nets small enough to steal the catch that locals would otherwise claim.
They also employ cheap foreign labour which only adds to the tensions, they say.
The commercial operations not only squeeze out Thai fishermen, forcing them to leave for work in Malaysia, but also lead to huge influxes of cheap foreign labour from neighbouring countries, experts say.
This leads to tensions as coastal villagers increasingly find their way of life under threat, experts say.
"About 70 to 80 percent of labourers on the (commercial) fishing boats are from Myanmar and Cambodia," said Sukree Hajisamae, a fisheries expert with the department of science at Prince Songkla University in Pattani.
"In the near future this is going to be a big problem. Locals will try to push them out of the country because they want to keep something for their own people and most are here illegally."
A conservation fishing area that aims to safeguard the traditional industry extends only three miles out to sea, which Sukree said was too small an area to make fishing viable for the locals. "It should be at least five."
Problems have been exacerbated by rising fuel prices.
As oil hit a record high above 146 dollars a barrel on Thursday, Thailand, too, has been hit by soaring fuel prices, with premium petrol hitting a record high of 42.89 baht (1.28 US dollars) per litre on June 30, up from 32.89 baht (98 US cents) at the start of the year.
Another fisherman, who did not want his name used, said: "It's difficult to find fish and when we do the price of fish is too cheap. I'm really suffering. I want the government to try to reduce the price of petrol so we can go out."
Srisompob Jitpiromsri of Deep South Watch, a Pattani-based think tank monitoring the separatist conflict along the southern border with Malaysia, says the insurgency has forced the government to consider the fishermen's fate.
"The fisheries' officers just ignored these things because they get money from the commercial sector but now they have become aware of the situation," he said.
The southern border association in Yala has a project to financially support the fishermen, but Sukree says this too is inadequate.
"We need revolution," he said. "We have to refocus our fishing industry in the right direction with someone willing to start now, with new policies."
But, he says, the solutions are as tough as the problems.
Sukree said half the fishing boats should be banned from the sea to prevent overfishing, and stricter controls put in place to ensure all boats are properly registered.
"There are too many boats," he said. "But who dares to do that?
"You have to set up the right management because fishing in Thailand right now means the longer your arms the more you get. If you are a commercial fisherman you probably have 10 boats but only register three.
"The traditional fishermen don't know how to voice their problems. They have no choice, no alternative livelihood, they're just waiting for a new generation."