THOUGH EXCESSIVE tourism has garnered recent headlines over threats to the health of Thailand’s diverse saltwater seas, illegal fishing presents another big challenge to preserving their rich natural resources.
Remote off-shore islands and underwater rocks are at the greatest risk of damage from illegal fishing activities, say marine ecosystems experts.
Meanwhile the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) and the Fisheries Department are working together to solve the problem of illegal fishing inside national park areas.
Shortly after Mu Ko Surin National Park in Phang Nga was opened for tourism last week, a group of scuba divers found a large fishing net covering a large area of coral reef at Mu Ko Surin’s prominent scuba-diving spot, Richelieu Rock.
It took four days to remove the fishing net from the reef, and this was not the first time that Richelieu Rock’s sensitive reef ecosystem had been threatened by fishing impacts.
Tongkan Worapanya, one of the scuba divers to discover the fishing net debris at Richelieu Rock last Thursday, quickly contacted Mu Ko Surin National Park and fellow scuba divers to help raise it from the reef.
“Though the damage to the corals caused by the net appears to be minor, I noticed that the fish population at Richelieu u Rock had greatly decreased when the net covered the coral reef,” said Tongkan, who is also an open water instructor at British Sub Aqua Club.
“We have been working tirelessly with national park officers to clear out the net and have just finished removing all of the fishing net debris.”
He suspects the net may have come from a fishing trawler too close to the rock, which accidentally entangled its net on the coral reef. Another possibility is the net was marine debris and had been washed over the reef by strong waves during the recent monsoon season.
Richelieu Rock is a submerged shoal within the Mu Ko Surin National Park, around 14 kilometres from Mu Ko Surin Islands, so any fishing activities at the reef or anywhere inside the national park are illegal.
The coral reef at Richelieu Rock is famous for its pristine deepwater corals and the high diversity of colourful marine animal, and so has become a prime destination for scuba divers to observe the scenic underwater world, and for illegal fishermen who come to catch abundant fish at the reef.
Tongkan further noted that this was not the first time that evidence of illegal fishing activities had been discovered at Richelieu Rock. Divers occasionally find fishing-net debris at the reef, and last year part of the vulnerable ecosystem was damaged by a blast from dynamite fishing.
Prominent marine biologist and member of the National Strategy Committee on Environmental Development, Thon Thamrongnawasawat, said illegal fishing presented a big problem to the efforts to preserve marine ecosystems.
Not only are many rare marine animals caught and killed by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, he said, but the beautiful coral reefs are also destroyed, causing huge damage to both the ecosystem and the tourism sector.
“Despite the authorities’ best efforts, many remote islands and underwater shoals are still out of patrol range for officers to regularly check and prevent illegal fishing, so these areas are our main blind spots,” Thon said.
To mitigate the problem, DNP is now working with the Fisheries Department on a proposal for trans-agency data sharing from vessel monitoring systems tracking.
That would alert them to encroachment in national park areas by any fishing vessels.
But data sharing agreements take time to hammer out. “There are still a lot of negotiations ahead until an agreement will be reached,” said Thon.