Torture on Thailand’s High Seas

I was going to write about my recent village interview trip today. Remote villages without internet — or even electricity in many cases — prevented any new entries. However, I’ll postpone that until tomorrow, as I saw an absolutely incendiary article this morning. As a dive instructor I witnessed a lot of questionable behavior from the large trawling vessels so prevalent in Thai waters. Yet I never realized such rampant human rights abuses were also present.

Partly due to abuses on the fishing boats chronicled in the article, Thailand is currently ranked just above Somalia and North Korea in the US State Department’s annual human trafficking report. Thailand eked out this higher rank only with a special recommendation from Secretary of State John Kerry.

Fish is delicious, but sometimes the story behind it makes me queasy.

Human rights abuses are only part of the reason I avoid eating most fish in Thailand (I only learned this unsavory aspect of Thailand fishing today). Trawlers tend to fish indiscriminately. Many use tiny netting that captures even the smallest minnows. Fish too small for human consumption are often used in feed for shrimp farms. Fishing boats will often sit vulture-like on the edges of Marine Park boundaries.When I worked on Koh Phi Phi the fishing boats would clear out of the Marine Park as soon as the dive boats arrived. The dive boats were the best enforcers of Marine Park boundaries. In three years working on dive boats in Thailand I never once saw a Thai Marine Parks official or boat. While working on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef I saw Marine Park agents multiple times a week.

Scenes like this will disappear if nothing is done about indiscriminate and corrupt fishermen.

The Koh Phi Phi Marine Park is dived year round, which prevents most poaching. North of Phi Phi, are the Similan and Surin Islands Marine Parks. These two Marine Parks have some of the world’s best diving. I can personally attest that the fish life around the Similan and Surin islands is incredible. These parks have an admirable policy of only allowing diving six months of the year. The other six months are meant to allow reef recovery. In practice, though, the fishermen have 6 months free reign over the reefs. These are not generally local fishermen. In my recent interview excursion I spoke with several local fishermen who complained about the ruthless trawlers mentioned in the article. These trawlers will fish indiscriminately for 6 months of the year, and can tarnish the reputation of rule-abiding local fishermen.

A fisherman from Koh Phra Tong who fishes near the Surin Islands, and complained about large outsider fishing boats.

In October, when dive boats return to the reefs, the first trips out are usually staff only clean up trips. Fish crates and nets drape the reef smothering coral. Even careful removal of debris can cause additional damage.  Friends working in the Similans have shown me pictures of Richelieu Rock – one of the world’s top dive sites – completely obscured under layers of abandoned nets.

Richelieu Rock was discovered by Jacques Cousteau and named for the purple corals (visible in the background) covering the U-shaped rock.

Two years ago the Thai Minister of Environment and Natural Resources closed several Similans dive sites. He said this was done due to bleaching damage caused by divers. Firstly divers do not cause bleaching — high water temperatures are the main cause. Fishing in Thailand is a multi-billion dollar industry. Corruption in Thailand is rampant. Rumors spread across the diving community that the fishing lobby paid off the minister, so they would have diver-free access to the reefs year-round.

Koh Bon, of the Similan Islands Marine Park, is a Manta Ray (Manta birostris shown here) epicenter. Mantas are often affected by unscrupulous fishing practices.

I witnessed the bleaching incident of June 2010. It was heartbreaking to watch the reefs I knew like my backyard wither and rot in a matter of days. Controlling these temperature changes is mostly beyond our control, but we can affect other factors, such as overfishing and runoff, that contribute to reef health.