Guest Post: Rural Communities in Thailand Conserve Vulnerable Fishes

CFL graduate student, Aaron Koning, spends a lot of time in Thailand, where he is studying fish conservation zones in rural communities to see if these efforts help protect fish biodiversity at a larger scale. His work caught the notice of UC Berkeley students in the Earth Journalism Scholars Program. Read more and watch the fantastic video below to learn more about Koning’s work. 

by Jacob Shea, UC-Berkeley Earth Journalism Scholars Program
THALIAND – In Mae Ngao National Park, a state reserve roughly 150 kilometers from Chiang Mai in Thailand, two women approach, one in a brightly colored handwoven shirt and dress— traditional Karen garb—and each holding a small net. Inside is a scanty handful of freshwater shrimp, snails and fingerling fish gathered from a nearby waterway.
Roughly thirty meters away is a wooden platform overlooking the Ngao River. Directly under the platform, the translucent green water gathers in a calm pool, chock full of hundreds of large, idle fish.
It is curious to see so many fish so close to the road, considering the near 50 villagers are subsistence farmers and fishers. That’s because this stretch of water is a Fish Conservation Zone (FCZ), a designated stretch of the river where fishing is prohibited. Similar to the marine protected areas now found in the oceans, but typically smaller in size, the FCZ is regulated and enforced by the villagers, and within its boundaries, the taking of animals or plants is forbidden. Designation of these zones began roughly two decades ago in response to overfishing and declining fish populations. Since then, the conservation zone method has spread and been adopted throughout neighboring villages, in a trend reflected in many areas of Southeast Asia.

Saving the River — Fish Conservation Zones Along the Mae Ngao from Andrew Beale on Vimeo.
Regulations are posted, and the village members work together to make sure the rules are followed. Transgressors are issued a warning, then a fine. By allowing fish populations a reprieve—particularly in the dry season when water flow is reduced—the conservation zones help preserve healthy stocks.
In short, as fish in these rivers face increasing threats from overfishing and changing habitat from human development, people in these rural villages have responded to preserve this vital resource. Initial results suggest that the approach appears to be working.

Locals describe the size and abundance of fish as far more plentiful 50 years ago. Fishing was primarily for subsistence in the village then as it is today. When vegetation wilts in the dry season, harvestable plants and animals become sparse, and villagers become increasingly dependent on the river for protein.

Local fishing practices, like this set-up in Thailand, supply important protein to surrounding communities. Photo: A. Koning

Today in the Mae Ngao region, more options for protein exist—people raise a few pigs or chickens, and roads have brought greater connectivity to villages—but eating fish is still an integral part of many peoples’ diet.
About two decades ago, villagers began to notice dwindling fish populations, which many attribute to growing fishing pressure. As the price of fish in towns and urban areas rose, people from populous cities and outside villages entered the park in greater numbers to fish aggressively, in an effort to generate income. With the newcomers came increasingly destructive methods, which hit the fish population hard.
“They did not use a fishing net or a fishing pole, but they used dynamite, electricity,” says Sombut Gingtarakaew, assistant village headman and chief of the forest protection committee in Mae Louie. “The population of fish at that time decreased a lot.”
When the Development Center for Children and Community Network, a Thai NGO based in nearby Mae Sariang, arrived about 22 years ago, fish had become scarce. The NGO brought the idea of Fish Conservation Zones and helped villagers to set up initial logistics. Some people were skeptical at first, but partially through the encouragement from community leaders, villagers began to see the benefit. Once the idea had gained acceptance, the initiative took off and support became widespread.
“Right now, it seems like every villager supports this conservation zone,” says Pracha Leubpichianpraiboon, farmer in Na Doi.
Eventually, the system came to resemble an idea near and dear to conservation science. Dr. Ian Baird, an anthropologist at University of Madison, Wisconsin, who has studied fishing communities in Southeast Asia for decades, attributes the success of such conservation zones in the region to high community buy-in.
“The fact that these areas were chosen to be protected has nothing to do with fishery scientists,” says Baird. “It has everything to do with local knowledge and the fact that people understand that these are important places…. More recently, local knowledge has been transferred into formalized systems as fish stocks have declined, due to various reasons, including dams and overfishing.”
Fisheries science has since shown that local knowledge makes sense. Local people have long known that fish congregate in the deeper pools in the dry seasons, largely because it’s cooler, they’re more protected from predation, and they’re less likely to get trapped where water disappears. Ensuring conservation in these areas, and especially during these crucial dry periods, helps to sustain the population that moves throughout the river system.
Across Southeast Asia, dams built over the last 40 or 50 years have blocked fish migration and drastically changed habitats. As a result, some fish species have disappeared and others have been drastically reduced. Growing market demand has also played a factor in driving up fishing pressure. And in the foreseeable future, booms in monoculture farming along the rivers threaten to inundate rivers with eroded sediment, fertilizer, and chemicals.
While that problem looms on the horizon, after two decades of the implementation of this FCZ, the consensus in Mae Ngao village appears to be positive.
One reason that community management is so crucial to conservation zones’ success, particularly in rural areas, is that environmental agencies in Thailand often lack sufficient resources or capabilities for enforcement. Departments are often underfunded or understaffed, so that one enforcement officer may be in charge of an overwhelming expanse of land. Rural location, coupled with so many types of fishery, often makes centralized management complex and unrealistic.
Furthermore, the law may not be in support of community-led conservation. Many local arrangements for FCZ enforcement are informal and not backed by state legislation. Baird says that the law may support the idea of conservation and the protection of certain areas, but not community enforcement.
“These areas are usually highly dependent on local solidarity and local people taking on this issue as important,” says Baird. “If they don’t take it on, then usually it doesn’t work.”
At a fish market in Chiang Mai, researcher Aaron Koning buys an assortment of fish. The fishmonger collects an assortment and drops them into a plastic bag, and with the blunt side of a cleaver, bashes them until they cease moving.
Koning is here to collect fish for a study on mercury levels, but his work over the past four years in the Mae Ngao region has centered on the FCZs and their ecological impact. He has surveyed a number of FCZs, which range from a few months to more than 20 years old, in an effort to determine how they’ve affected fish biomass, abundance, and diversity. 
Aaron Koning speaks with two women who collect small animals from a nearby stream. Photo by Jacob Shea.

Koning believes that in these zones, the biodiversity more closely resembles what the natural ecosystem would have been before humans altered the ecosystem. Furthermore, his research suggests that the relative abundance inside the zones translates to more fish moving outside the zones, which the villagers can catch.
Koning hopes that his research can “translate into other developing contexts around the world where you’ve got communities living in close proximity to rivers that are highly reliant on rivers for nutrition.”
One debate common in conservation circles involves how to approach the communities that live on and off the resource. Some conservationists argue for displacing people from national parks such as Mae Ngao to protect the pristine resources. Others believe that those living off the land sustainably best ensure protection of the environment.
“Our parents, our ancestor lived here for a long time, and we have really old management here,” says Yodchai Pornpongprai, the Deputy District Administrator in the village. “Every natural resource is here—we use it, and we also take care of it.”
Freshwater fish catches in Southeast Asia’s rivers are ranked among the highest in the world. According to a 2016 study in Freshwater Fisheries Ecology, rivers in Southeast Asia account for 27 percent of total of these catches. However, given that fishing is so often for subsistence, it’s difficult to accurately assess how much is being caught. According to the Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission, it is well established that official catch data in Thailand’s inland fisheries significantly underreport how much is actually taken.
While the concept of FCZs is today commonly used in the oceans through the adoption of Marine Protected Areas, some fishery biologists were initially skeptical of applying it to rivers, according to a 2006 paper in Fishery Management and Ecology. Some scientists wondered how a constant flowing body of water could help preserve fish if they can move strait through the zone.
And in many instances, the zones are seen more as a livelihood enhancement feature than a conservation measure, because they serve to improve fishing outside of zones.
Baird says that there are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of such zones (in various iterations) across SE Asia. Koning says that he’s recorded upwards of 50 conservation zones in the river catchment that he studies.
Aaron Koning collects water samples on Thailand’s Yuam River

While the idea has gained traction, Baird emphasizes that the FCZs are not enough, particularly in the face of encroaching water infrastructure projects. He sees them not as a silver bullet for fishery conservation, but rather, as one tool that can be useful. FCZs are site specific both ecologically and logistically, effective where enforcement is feasible and the rules not overly restrictive.
Conservation zones on river systems are largely unique to Southeast Asia, which Baird attributes in large part to the fluctuating rainy seasons in monsoonal climates. When water levels are lower in the dry season, fish have adapted to migrate, and they rely on deep pools to survive.
“These areas have expanded because local people have observed that they’re useful, and that there is a way that they can do something to be empowered about the fish in their areas,” says Baird. “Having said that, they’re not enough—they’re not going to fix all the problems of the river or all the problems of fish populations.”

Thailand has a long history of contentious battles over hydropower dams, touching off public protests that have stymied big, high-profile projects, which have become less common in recent years. But water infrastructure projects continue in the form of diversions and irrigation, which also can have severe impacts on communities and ecosystems. 
In Southeast Asia, river ecosystems are understudied, which is troubling in light of disruptive infrastructure development. In the tropical river ecosystems of Southeast Asia, according to Koning, fish diversity is not well understood. 
“There’s not enough natural data,” says Koning. “The system is definitely changing, but it’s not clear what to or from.”
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), Thailand’s state-owned power utility, considered building a dam at Nam Nae Ngao as part of a water diversion project. The dam would not generate power at the site; rather, it would create a reservoir to send water via a 62-kilometers canal east to the Bhumibol Dam, a 505-foot, 743.8 megawatt hydropower dam that supplies power to Bangkok.
According to an email from EGAT Spokesperson Anna Sukluan, the project at Nam Nae Ngao is no longer being considered; however, another canal to the Nam Mae Tun Dam further south is now under review, pending a Royal Irrigation Department feasibility study which will finish next year.
“Water projects in Thailand never really die,” says Koning. “Often they go into a drawer and years later someone pulls one out.”
Meanwhile, neighboring Myanmar recently announced plans to build a cascade of dams on the nearby Salween River. Such large hydropower projects can have vast ramifications for tributaries as far away as the Ngao River.
Kate Ross, the Mekong Program Coordinator at International Rivers, an internationally based nonprofit that focuses on hydropower projects globally, highlights a long history of community mobilizing around hydropower projects in Thailand. 
In her work, Ross sees strong linkages between the people who are dependent on the tributaries and mainstream hydropower projects which impact those tributaries.
“One of the challenges we face in looking at tributary rivers is that there’s not as much public awareness about what’s going on on the tributaries, because there’s been so much focus on the mainstream,” says Ross. “There’s been a big challenge whereby those sorts of areas have gotten less attention or been ignored.”

Thanks to Jacob Shea and Andrew Beale for sharing their work for the UC-Berkeley Earth Journalism Scholars Program with us!

But wait, there’s more (or soon will be). At the end of 2017, Koning spent his Christmas in Thailand with fellow CFL graduate student Martin Perales – stay tuned for more on that adventure.