It’s 9am and Duanpen Jaengpracham sits patiently at the end of the Ko Tor community pier, where the sea breeze keeps her cool as the day heats up. She’s waiting for her husband and daughter, who have been out fishing since 3am. Duanpen, who is called Khun Pen, is hoping they land a decent catch.
A large, long-tail boat has already come in. The crew, all members of the same family, are working hard to unload. They’re happy, having caught a tonne of Lang Keaw, or sprat, last night: much more than the average haul of 200 kilograms to 300 kilograms. It will fetch only THB6-7 per kilogram, which such large hauls are a big deal.
Khun Pen, 50, usually joins her family on the boat but has stayed behind to tell Coconuts how her story intertwines with that of the sea, an ever-diminishing bounty blamed not only on climate change but also practices closer to home – industrial pollution, poorly designed nets, harmful abandoned gear – and innovative attempts to address them.
A member of the board representing Samut Prakan’s artisanal fishing communities, Khun Pen described how climate change has made coastal waters warmer, causing once-common mackerel to disappear as the water’s now too warm for them to lay their eggs.
“We have to go far to catch mackerel,” she said. “I don’t bother going for them anymore. Overall, stocks of all species have fallen and fishing families with many mouths to feed are facing problems.” Climate change is just one of many reasons this has happened.
“I think it’s partly caused by nearby fabric factories which release chemicals into the sea,” she added, “and there’s illegal fishing. People outside the community use illegal Ai Ngo nets which catch all species indiscriminately.”
Ai Ngo nets do not have specially designed escape routes for juvenile fish or non-target species to break free. When fish are caught too young, they cannot be sold and are thrown away. This means they don’t get a chance to reproduce, causing fish stocks to plummet.
Khun Pen has reported the problem to the authorities and sometimes they come to remove the nets, which they find unsupervised and laid out on the seabed. It’s hard to catch the culprits because there is no way of identifying who owns the nets.
She says there are desperate people who use these unsustainable fishing methods to earn cash to feed drug habits. When officials come to investigate, she has seen them shout and throw stones at them.
Asked about plastic pollution, she does not think it’s a big factor in fishing decline, though, it still creates frustrating problems.
“I pulled my net in to discover plastic bags and nothing else. Water filled plastic bottles and bags snag and tear our nets when we pull them in,” she said. “Discarded bags and old clothes can get tangled in the boat’s propellers, costing both time and money.”
Another issue facing fisherfolk and likely contributing to falling yields surrounds so-called ghost gear. This is abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing equipment that ends up in the oceans without any control.
“It’s a deadly form of marine plastic pollution,” said Salisa Traipipitsiriwat of the Environmental Justice Foundation. Traipiptsiriwat coordinates the foundation’s Net Free Seas project, which is working to overcome the problem.
“Once leaked into the ocean, old fishing equipment continues to do what it was designed for: catching or entangling whatever it comes into contact with,” she added.