Tangled in the Net

Koh Chang? The man points to a boat. 2 o’clock. Ticket on boat. Great, I’m in the right place. Plenty of time to devour my market-bought lunch, sip a fresh coconut and observe pier happenings. An hour or so later, I clamber on board a long tail boat, sit on a wooden plank perched above bags of vegetables, bottles of water and soft drink, trays of eggs. I had decided to check out Koh Chang for the weekend, an island a little over an hour’s ferry ride from Ranong. With diesel fumes thickening the air, we set off, through a slurry of floating plastic bottles. We cruised past plastic bag cloaked mangroves, their beauty slightly tainted. On the other side of the boat I could see fishing vessels moored at docks, with towers of plastic tubs, waiting expectantly to transport the next incoming catch.

Ranong fishing docks and warehouses

Glimpsing these buildings from the water augmented my daily insights into the local fishing industry, one of the economic mainstays of Ranong and the surrounding area. The sheer quantity of fish and seafood hauled to shore each day is mind-boggling. From the port, it is transported to local factories and processed for export. Everyday while cycling to and from school, I am passed by countless trucks full of blank-faced factory workers crammed into the back like cattle. In some parts of the city, putrid fumes from shrimp factories permeate your nostrils. You can buy fish in the local markets and eat it in restaurants, but the majority is exported, with Thailand being the world’s fourth largest fish exporter.

As an observer, I am concerned about the impacts the industry is having on both people’s well-being and the marine environment. Both the volume of fish plundered from the ocean and the conditions of workers both onshore and offshore doesn’t seem to be sustainable. Unfortunately this blog can’t do justice to both of these, which are tangled in the net of the Thai fishing industry.

The fishing industry relies on cheap labour (often migrants) who work in slave like conditions for little or poor wages. Some work for years at sea, trapped by debts owed to human traffickers. In 2015 the EU issued Thailand a warning, threatening an EU import ban unless slavery and human trafficking issues were addressed. It’s hard to ascertain whether any progress has been made on this or not. Thailand claims it has done so and has introduced some legislation in an attempt to regulate and change the industry. However, locally I’ve seen anti-EU sentiment, with vehicles emblazoned with messages accusing the EU of trying to destroy the local industry, which suggests continuing tension.

In addition, to maintain profits and satisfy market demands, boats are reportedly having to go further from shore and workers are forced to endure arduous 20-plus hour days. In an effort to stay awake and endure brutal and violent conditions, drug use has become prevalent, which is further linked to the spread of diseases like AIDS through sharing needles. Some 450,000 people were estimated to have AIDS in Thailand in 2016.

I have sporadically eaten seafood in Ranong, but I wonder at the ethics of doing so. How many people’s blood is on a mouthful of fish? It may be difficult for the majority of you who are reading this from far away places to connect with these issues. It is difficult to imagine life in this part of the world without fishing, however it is clear to me, that until people around the world stop prioritising economic and political needs above the well being of people and nature, exploitation of both will continue. There are no easy solutions to this complex issue, but holistic thinking is required to ensure fisheries are managed sustainably while simultaneously improving the livelihoods of people. Thinking which serves justice to both people and nature alike.


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