Upcoming research on fishing net use: Developments in Chanthaburi Province

23 July 2013 | Article

The four-year Building Resilience to Climate Change (BCR) project, that started in 2011, aims to build capacity of local governments and people in eight coastal provinces across Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. As part of this project, Chanthaburi Province in Thailand has been selected to reduce its vulnerability to climate change. In Thailand, the partners for the project are the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. Since the final year for implementation is approaching, the sustainability of project is an important concern. We learn more about the progress and developments in SDF’s field work at Bang Chan sub-district, Chanthaburi Province.

Bang Chan Sub-district in Chanthaburi Province is beset by a number of structural issues, as both the communities’ homes and their fishery livelihoods are considered to encroach illegally upon protected mangrove territory. In relation to the communities’ fishery livelihoods, the priority issue that SDF has been working on together with the local communities is their use of fixed set bag nets, in Thai called pong pang. These are stationary, staked nets that are placed in the mangrove’s waterways, and which rely upon tidal flows to bring marine animals into the nets where they are harvested. This type of stationary, staked fishing gear is considered illegal under Thai fishery law.

The problem is that a large percentage of the local community, some 300 or so households, use this type of fishing gear as their primary livelihood means. Without it, they would struggle to support themselves and their families. Therefore, SDF has been working with the local communities to develop a research project which aims to explore the environmental impact of this type of fishing practice, and to find ways to make fishing practices in Bang Chan Sub-district as sustainable as possible in the long term.

Fixed set bag nets are a very efficient fishing gear with the capacity to catch large numbers of marine animals, and for this reason the Department of Fisheries (DoF) considers them damaging to marine life and the marine environment. Research carried out at Klong Sanphasamit by the Upper Gulf Marine Fisheries Research and Development Center between October 2006 – May 2008 (Ratanawalee Phoonsawat et al.) is the main evidence cited in this respect. DoF has declared that fixed set bag nets should eventually be removed from all of Thailand’s coastal provinces, and has indicated that no further research will be conducted in relation to the detrimental impacts of this type of fishing gear, as they believe the recommendations from the original study remain valid.

“In examining the efficiency of fishing gears, the focus has been upon how many fish can be caught and how quickly. What hasn’t been investigated in quite so much detail is how such fishing gears operate in the context of the wider ecosystem; particularly the relationship between the efficiency of different types of fishing gears and the carrying capacity of the ecosystems in which they are used. This leads us to believe that a participatory research approach might be of use in Bang Chan Sub-district; it will allow the local communities to investigate for themselves how fishery practices in the area might be made more sustainable", says Jonathan Shott, Project Manager and Disaster Management Consultant at SDF.

SDF has been providing technical support to the communities in Bang Chan Sub-district, helping them to develop a participatory action research project which will explore solutions for sustainable fishery in the area over a period of two years. The aim will be to investigate whether fixed set bag nets, perhaps with appropriate changes to the number and nature of the nets used, can be sustainably managed within the local ecosystem, and if not to explore what viable alternatives there are for adopting more sustainable fishery livelihoods in the long term. Though DoF says these nets are harmful to marine life, and many would agree with their conclusion, they are only functional for around fifteen days a month because their use is dependent upon high tidal variations.

In effect, the nets are operational for only around half of each year. If these operational and ecosystem factors are taken into account, even though fixed set bag nets have a high capacity, they can perhaps be managed sustainably without detrimentally affecting marine life and the local environment. Another incentive for carrying out such research in Bang Chan Sub-district is the unusual prevalence of fixed set bag nets in the area.

In other coastal sub-districts around Thailand, one might reasonably expect to find around 30 – 50 such nets in use, or perhaps as many as 200 – 300 in a few specific areas where the use of such nets is particularly common. But a recent survey supported by the BCR project indicates there are around 1,300 fixed set bag nets currently in use in Bang Chan Sub-district. It is the predominant form of capture fishery in the sub-district, and the mainstay of communities like Ban Rong Mai. Past attempts by the authorities to physically remove the villagers’ fixed set bag nets have met with strong opposition, with the sub-district’s fishers taking their boats in large numbers to prevent the officials from carrying out their work.

The DoF campaign to gradually remove fixed set bags nets has already proved successful in many of Thailand’s coastal provinces. In these instances, local fishers have been able to adapt to using other types of fishing gear, or even to alternative, non-fishery livelihoods. However, the special nature of Bang Chan Sub-district will make such adaptation more difficult there. Approximately 1,300 households live together in close proximity in more than 6,000 hectares of mangrove forest.

The lack of any real land means agriculture livelihoods are all but impossible, and the result is very intense fishery activity. Because fixed set bag nets are staked and stationary, they allow the villagers to allocate fishery resources in a clear and systematic way, avoiding squabbles. A move away from fixed set bag nets to other non-stationary types of fishing gears could well bring about considerable conflict within the communities. Through the participatory action research project the local communities will explore whether the use of fixed set bag nets can be managed in such a way so as to make it sustainable in the long term.

Although the research project will be community-owned and community-led, it is important too that it also be academically rigorous, in order to ensure that government agencies will acknowledge and accept its results and conclusions. In this respect SDF has been working with academics from Prince of Songkhla University in the South and Burapha University in the East to ensure that adequate and appropriate technical backup is provided to the local communities in carrying out the research. Furthermore, the project has supported Bang Chan’s communities in working closely with Chanthaburi’s provincial authorities in order to ensure the participatory action research project is accepted as an appropriate way to find a solution to the problem of fixed set bag net use in the province, as well as to help secure funding for the two-year project.

“As part of the research, villagers now regularly meet and engage with provincial-level stakeholders. This has increased their capacity and helped change their mentality. Even if we can’t win the battle to get the provincial authorities to accept all of the outcomes of this research, we will have built a great deal of social capital along the way and facilitated interaction between the communities and the authorities. It’s a win-win”, says Jonathan Shott.