ECONOMY: Tsunami wipes out Thai fisheries

Fear Of The Sea
Printed on January 21, 2005,

A fisherman his whole life, Somkiat Baanperm never wants to see the sea again.

“I’m afraid to be a fisherman again. I don’t dare go near the water,” says Baanperm, who lost his mother and several relatives when the tsunami killed about 3,000 villagers from Baan Nam Khem, which ironically means “salt water village.” “I’m afraid of ghosts in the sea.” And corpses too. He says fishermen from neighboring Ranong province, whose boats survived the waves that wrecked most of Phang-Nga’s fleet, are finding five to 10 bodies a day in their nets. “When that happens, they release the bodies, and all the fish in their nets too, because they’re spoiled.”

Government officials maintain the fish are safe to eat, and die-hard tourists haven’t reported swimming with bodies. But a newfound fear of the sea among many fishermen here is jeopardizing the future of many around the Indian Ocean, which provides a large share of the world’s supply of fish. With most aid focused on preventing disease and famine, some worry that fishing will be overlooked. “We see the devastation of the tourism industry. What we’re not seeing is the devastation of the fishing industry,” said Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, the first Western leader to visit the tsunami region, after touring Phuket last Sunday. “The reason we’re not seeing it is because 4,500 boats have disappeared. How many countless fishermen and families have disappeared? These are the issues that we’ve got to deal with. It’s a fundamental foundation of the economy here.”

Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration has banned fishing in shallow waters along the affected coast. Amid unfounded rumours that fish feed on corpses, many are avoiding eating fish. Even fresh markets further south in Krabi province sell no seafood. Thailand’s agriculture minister, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, estimates the fishing industry suffered two billion baht in damages, about $50 million. He said the tsunami wrecked about 4,000 boats and 10,000 fish breeders at sea.

“Fishing has stopped,” says Baanperm, a man with coarse hands and leathery skin. “There won’t be fishing for several months.” With no home, boat, savings or job, he says he hopes to change careers and start a new life on higher ground. “Living by the hills is easier. We don’t have to worry about the sea ever again. I want to be a paw khaa in the Takua Pa market. I’ll sell anything, even seafood. Most fishermen want to change, and do this.”

But who will buy? Much of Thailand’s vibrant economy was geared toward serving 12 million foreign tourists a year. But few tourists, or resort owners and investors, are likely to return to the Khao Lak killing fields, where thousands died in resorts, mom-and-pop bungalows, dive shops and internet cafes hit by 45-foot waves along a narrow 15-mile stretch of shore.

The attack of the black sea also wiped out shrimp farms along the coast. In Tap-Tawan village in Khao Lak, some of the 100 workers at a shrimp farm owned by Charoen Pokpand, one of Asia’s largest companies, said they expected to lose their jobs, which pay about $3 a day. “We’re not sure about our future,” said shrimp worker Titipaan Plaa-Muansin, 24, as he stood looking at destroyed reefs exposed like tombstones on the Khao Lak shore. “First we have to clean up the site. After that, we’ll probably have no work.”

Fishermen who do choose to return to sea can apply for compensation of 70,000 baht, about $1,700, for smaller boats. But if they can’t fish, the local work force has few alternatives. Tourism, which grew tenfold in a decade, grafted gated resorts, golf courses, and elephant corals onto lands that had been rubber fields, fruit orchards, and tin mines. From the late 1980s onward, villagers went into debt in order to corral the foreigners who appeared like schools of fish every winter in search of the tropical sun. “We thought those farang (foreigners) were nice,” says Baanperm. “They were rich and we were poor. They helped us.”

With wealthier foreigners eager to buy, the price of seafood doubled and tripled in a decade, beyond the reach of many local Thai consumers, who switched to diets of pork and chicken. Foreigners not only bought the lion’s share of seafood in Thailand, they also bought Thai exports such as red snapper, squid, shrimp and tiger prawns when they got home. Even fisheries on the East Coast, away from the tsunami zone, are losing business because consumers as far away as Hong Kong fear tainted Thai fish. “First, more than 3,000 fishing trawlers were damaged, and now local consumers are shunning seafood,” said Krabi Fisheries Association President Manit Damkul.

Without foreign and domestic buyers, a collapsing fishery is sending shock waves across the country, especially to the landlocked northeast. Many tsunami victims were impoverished ethnic Laotians who sent money back to impoverished villages which often suffer from drought. Raised far from the ocean, they rushed out to grab fish and crabs stranded when the ocean receded about a mile and then drowned them as the tsunami came roaring in.

The Thai government expelled hundreds of Burmese laborers who worked on fishing boats and docks. They have returned to Burmese villages empty-handed and unable to pay middle-men who smuggled them into Thailand. Many migrant workers from across Thailand are too shocked or bereaved to go home. Two years ago, Urai Sirisuk and her family moved from the poverty of their native Prachuab Kiri Khan province on Thailand’s southeast coast to the booming village of Baan Nam Khem. “We moved here because we could make more money,” she says. “The economy was good. A lot of foreigners came here.” On good days, they profited over two thousand baht ($50) working together selling squid and a cornucopia of fish to wealthy foreigners staying in the opulent resorts next door in Khao Lak.

Sitting in front of their house on Dec. 26, they never saw the tsunami coming. “It hit so fast, we never had time to run,” says Urai’s husband, Chuen Sirisuk. “The sea just washed us away. Most victims were lost at sea.” They never saw their 4-year old daughter Rattana-wadee again. Holding a portrait of her angelic child in a school uniform, Urai says her heart is torn out from looking for her everyday in fields, swamps, and tin mines filled with the Indian Ocean. “Haa mai jeu. Look no find. We saw children’s bodies yesterday in the temple, but we can’t tell who is a boy or a girl.”

She says she has to accept she’s not coming back. “I don’t dream about her anymore. I know this isn’t a dream. This is reality.” But as long as her daughter remains missing, Urai says she can’t leave. “Our daughter died here. So we can’t go back. We don’t want to go back.”

Instead of returning to their native province, they’ll stay two in a humid tent, with no breeze or fans, and eat government rations, until they can return to Baan Nam Khem. “Maybe it will take two years, but we will wait. We can’t go back to Prachuab. We lost everything, even our dogs and cats. We kept most of our money in our house, not in the bank.” Though other tourism workers have already migrated to untouched east coast resorts, Urai says there’s no point in trying booming tourist havens such as Koh Samui or Hua Hin. “There’s already sellers there. They won’t let us in.”

On Friday, the finance minister led a tour of Thai journalists to the site where the government, campaigning for next month’s election, promises to house thousands of former fishing villagers on government land far from the sea, for a rent of 20 baht per month for 30 years. Though many villagers say they’d rather return to their former land, Baanperm says he’ll take whatever he can get. “I’m a poor beggar now,” says Baanperm, who must support a wife and three children. “We don’t have a choice. We have to live wherever we can.”

Though some villagers say they’d prefer to return to Baan Nam Khem, Urai Sirisuk says it will take time to feel comfortable there again. “When I go back to the village, I feel so sad. I wish I were blind. It’s really hard to look.” 


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s