by Aaron Koning
“At the next site we’ll have to be careful to avoid the elephants” warned my field assistant, Witu. His words would have struck me more soundly if I hadn’t come across the two Elaphas along the banks of the Ngao River while conducting snorkel surveys a day earlier. The two captive individuals belong to a village over the mountain, and were currently being rotated through various forest patches to browse their way through the dry season.
While conservation actions aimed at restoring elephant populations in Thailand have produced somewhat limited success, the protected river stretch I was surveying has been highly successful in increasing populations of native fishes, especially when compared to adjoining non-protected river reaches.
Fishing pressure, which occurs year round and in a number of forms like gill nets, cast nets, bamboo fish traps, and spearfishing has reduced fish density throughout much of Southeast Asia to very low levels.
Partially motivated by reduced fish catches, and partially as a response to a local non-profit organization’s coaxing, several communities in northwestern Thailand have set aside short stretches of river (about 300-1000 meters) to serve as fish refuges. Creation of freshwater protected areas is not limited to streams in northern Thailand, but is a cultural phenomenon that has occurred throughout much of Southeast Asia.
The motivations for conserving freshwater fish are varied, but are often associated with an animist-based reverence to the spirits of a particular stretch of river.
Whatever the motivation for protection, the result is that certain stretches of river now teem with fish, while others do not.
World-wide, the creation of protected areas for fish has largely centered on marine areas and global marine fisheries. Recently, however, the creation of protected areas specifically for freshwater fish conservation has received increased attention.
In northern Thailand, the creation of protected areas for fish nearly two decades ago provides an intriguing opportunity to study the efficacy of protected areas, albeit small ones, on a number of conservation goals including: enhancing fish abundance and diversity, maintaining and regulating important ecosystem functions, and potentially providing enhanced fish catches to in the fishing zones that border the off-limits protected areas.
Over the course of the next year, I will be in the Mae Hong Son Province of Thailand along the border of Myanmar (Burma), conducting research that will hopefully begin to understand the potential for freshwater protected areas to achieve these conservation aims. Already this year, I’ve finished fieldwork for one of my experiments. I hope it will offer me some insights that will guide my research over the coming months and, in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll even have some initial findings to report.
Aaron Koning is a CFL graduate student working with professor Pete McIntyre on research related to freshwater fish conservation.