“Men are the elephant’s front feet” is a famous Thai saying, meaning men are the leaders in a family. This has long been the dominant narrative in a rather patriarchal  country, but especially in fishing communities. Traditionally, men are responsible for offshore fishing to feed family members. Women, on the other hand, oversee household activities and take care of children and family members.

But in the Chana community, a coastal village in the southern province of Songkhla, Thailand, things are different. Here, women participate in offshore fishing, leading the sustainable development of the community, as well as movements that protect the ocean.

These “aunties” – a term to acknowledge and show respect – have challenged the deep-seated male-dominated perception of fishing communities across the country.

Chana is famous for its dove-singing competition and abundant natural resources, especially the ocean. For decades, the Chana ocean has fed the local communities: its seafood is exported across Thailand and overseas to countries like Singapore, Malaysia, China, Korea, and Japan. The pristine beach serves as a public space for community activities, such as the annual boat race called A Boi Ma and a relaxing area for people in neighbouring provinces.

Located in the gulf of Thailand, Chana’s sea hosts more than 196 marine species including crab, shrimp, crayfish, and endangered marine animals like seahorse, turtle, and dolphin. The majority of the local population relies on this sea for their livelihood.

“We have food because of the healthy ocean. We are lucky to live by the sea, to be fishers, to have this sea,” Lorkeebha Mhadlheng said.

Lorkeebha is a member of the Tao Kai group (translated as pregnant turtle). Formed by a small group of women fishers who want to advance the economic value of local products in a sustainable way, Lorkeebh along with Sainub Ya-manya, Loseesa Lemlor, and other members, explained that they were born in fishing families and learned skills that have been passed on for generations. Although they grew up and got married, their relationship with the ocean remains.

“I’m still fishing even after I’m married. Even when I was eight-months pregnant, I was still getting the boat ready for the fishing trip!” Lorkeebh said.

Since 1993, the Chana sea has been threatened by industrial fishing, with large fishing vessels and bottom trawlers invading coastal fishing waters – the area within six nautical miles from land. Without proper management, the Chana sea became “empty.”  Local fishers had to sail outside their home to fish; others completely stopped fishing and moved to different sectors such as factory or restaurant work. Some even moved to nearby countries like Malaysia to find work.

“Bottom trawlers take away everything. So every Friday we would gather to talk because we couldn’t live like that. Many families were struggling. We had to start over,” the Tao Kai group explained.

The local people came up with solutions to revive the health of the sea. They have agreement among the communities to use more sustainable fishing, such as by using hand-made nets, with the mesh size of the nets varying depending on species, in order to avoid bycatch and juvenile fishes.

This is to ensure that there will be fishes for generations to come.