A young giant manta ray (Mobula birostris) is seen swimming with a large open wound from entangling with ghost nets near Koh Bon, an offshore island in Mu Koh Similan National Park, Phang-nga province, Thailand. The individual repeatedly approached divers and allowed them to remove the majority of the ghost nets, a term for discarded or abandoned fishing gears that can catch and kill or maim marine life while drifting around with the current in the oceans.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

AILING SEAS

Photos/ Story: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
The Photo Essay series: SDGs I The Depth of Field

Situated in the tropical Indo-Pacific region, the biodiversity hotspot of the world, Thai waters are rich in marine life, similar to other nations in Southeast Asia. Although they might not be as rich, in terms of biological abundance, as the cool green temperate seas that are nourished with nutrients from the cold deep, the warm and clear tropical seas make up for it with a greater variety of species in tropical marine and coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangrove forests or seagrass habitats. These ecosystems provide homes to a vast diversity of marine life, including the largest fish in the oceans_the whale sharks_that regularly frequent the coastal zones of Thailand when plankton is abundant. 

Marine resources have contributed substantially to the growth of the Thai economy for most of the second half of the past century. Our fisheries sectors feed our seafood export industry and have made Thailand one of the world’s top exporters, while our seascapes along the two coastlines are also regarded among the top travel destinations in the world. But behind the impressive numbers in the economic reports, marine resources in Thai waters that have been used as the sacrifice have suffered a severe decline along the way.

Sinking fish stocks

Since the early introduction of industrial trawl fishing to Thailand in the late 1960s, various scientific reports provide evidence of the substantial decline in our fish stocks. The catch rate _catch per unit effort (CPUE)_was 300 kilogram per hour in the 1970s but it plunged sharply to 20-30 kg per hour in the 1990s in the Gulf of Thailand. In the same period, the fishing fleet continued to grow along with exports of the seafood industry, an inverse relationship with the declining resources. 

As Thai commercial fleets mostly employ fishing gears with low gear selectivities, such as trawls or purse seine in the area with high biodiversity richness, the result is a large portion of the catch consists of non-targeted species and undersized economic species, usually known as “bycatch”. These juvenile fishes or unwanted species are often sold as “trashfish” to be used in shrimp farms or processed into animal feed for livestock. Although the unwanted catch is fully utilised in other industries, the prevalence of non-selective and often destructive fishing practices has pillaged most of the Thai seas, except for some protected areas, resulting in the decline of fisheries resources throughout our waters along with degradation of the marine habitats. 

The same fate has befallen our once pristine beaches, colourful reefs and picturesque tropical islands where the marine tourism sector is estimated to attract over 50 million visitors from all over the world each year to our seas. The carrying capacity of the seascapes was unfortunately mostly ignored in tourism management during the tourism boom in Thailand during the late 20th century. Consequently, the seascape gradually degraded from mass tourism that exceed the limit that nature can sustain as a result, including within protected areas such as national parks or sanctuaries, except for some remote sleepy islands rarely visited by people.

Although the resources of our waters have undergone severe exploitation for more than half a century, the recent shift in the direction of management of Thai waters has resulted in several indicators, giving some hope to the marine conservation community. 

Marine life is making a comeback within a few years, and it was most noticeable in the marine protected areas since the recent strict upgrade of fisheries regulations to address IUU fishing problems was implemented. A massive school of reef fish are becoming more common at dive sites, while rare endangered species are being increasingly reported by divers. 

Combined with the upgrade to the management of marine protected areas, such as the closure of the famous Maya Bay, it would be an understatement to describe the results as surprising. Within months after the closure of Maya Bay, over 60 pregnant reef sharks returned to give birth in the no-entry zone, and it keeps growing every year, now exceeding a hundred sharks. Moreover, restoration efforts of coral reefs within the degraded bay have also yielded good results, where the transplanted fragments are growing back due to the minimisation of human disturbances. 

These highlight the resilience of the marine resources in our waters despite the damage from the past, showing that nature can regerminate only if we give it a chance.

Threat of plastic

Still, many challenges warrant urgent action. Marine plastic still poses deadly threats to countless marine life throughout the oceans, killing them out of sight from just beneath the blue surface to the great dark depth of the trench. 

Thailand was listed as the sixth biggest contributor to marine plastic in the world’s oceans in scientific literature. But perhaps the most interesting fact is that the amount of plastic consumption per capita here is not remarkable; a large quantity of plastic is released into the sea from ineffective waste management systems. Relevant policies and investment in infrastructure are required to effectively help combat marine plastic pollution, considering the estimate that 80 per cent of marine plastics originated on the land. 

Another growing threat to marine life is climate change which has killed off a large area of the world’s coral reefs due to the warming temperature, while acidification_as speculated_has reduced the survival of juvenile aquatic animals, just to name a few examples. It is not just marine life that will be affected by the changing climate, but all living things in the world in every ecosystem, including humanity.

Saving our seas

Positive changes may not seem easy, and people might be growing jaded with the daily bombardment of bad news, but there is hardly any other option left for us to protect our seas better. Although most of us may not have the privilege to live near the sea, the largest percentage of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine phytoplankton in the temperate sea. Even if we don’t eat seafood directly, the poultry you eat may grow up on protein from fishmeal that often fishes unsustainably. Even though coastal communities will be the first casualties, in the end, all of us will be affected if the health of the oceans continues to decline. If we do not act promptly enough in the remaining time, we could perish along with the sea by our own hands.

A large school of herring scad (Alepes vari) congregate near the tip of an underwater pinnacle, feasting on food in the water column carried by the current during the twilight hour, at Richelieu Rock, Mu Koh Surin National Park in Phang-nga.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

A whale shark (Rhincodon typus) with its trailing school of fishes emerges from the gloom to feed on plankton in the current at 8 Miles Rock, a submerged pinnacle of the Adang-Rawi Archipelago in Satun province. The reason for the seasonal occurrence of whale sharks in the Adang-Rawi Archipelago is still not well-understood, but it is likely to be related to the high productivity of the southern Andaman coast with the oceanographic condition at the beginning of the Northeast monsoon.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

A box jellyfish (Cubozoan) swims in the current during the night, while catching planktonic crustaceans in the water column with its venomous tentacles, off Mu Koh Surin National Park in Phang-nga. Although Box jellyfish are regularly regarded as one of the deadliest marine creatures, a handful of species are confirmed to be involved in human deaths.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
A pair of newborn blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) gently cruise among the roots in a peaceful mangrove forest during high tide, Mu Koh Surin National Park, in Phang-nga. The mangrove forest of Koh Surin is one of the few documented locations known as the nursery areas of this coastal shark species in Thai waters. As a result, these baby sharks enjoy some momentary protection while residing in the forest.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
At sunrise, a field of Robust staghorn coral (Acropora robusta) emerges from the water surface during low tide in Koh Bulon Lae, Mu Koh Phetra National Park, Satun province. To prevent themselves from drying out, corals can secrete mucous to cover their bodies to survive for a period while being exposed to air.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
A mangrove swimming crab (Thalamita crenata) brandishes its claws as a warning to deter predators while dashing away into the seagrass meadow in the intertidal zone at Koh Libong, Trang province. Seagrass meadow provides critical habitat for various marine life, especially during the juvenile stages, but these marine ecosystems are facing increasing threats from both climate change and coastal development.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
A fishing crew with vibrant safety gears unload their catch from a purse seiner at a landing site in the evening, beforeheading back out again into the Gulf of Thailand during the night, in Prachuab Khiri Khan province. Although, fish stocks in the Gulf of Thailand have severely declined, where the catch rate was reported to have dropped from 300 kg/hour in the 1970s to 20-30 kg/hour in the 1990s, there is still limited regulation to effectively address the stock depletion, as the demand for seafood for local consumption and export remain high and largely contribute to the Thai economy.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
At pre-dawn, a crocodile needlefish (Tylosurus crocodilus) is seen entangled in the nets while being pulled towards the surface by a purse seiner in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. Due to the high biodiversity in the tropical water, fishing gears with low selectivities, such as purse seine and trawler, can affect diverse species that are neither targeted nor economical, which remains a big challenge for management.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

Deep red blood disperses all over the sandy beach with the incoming tide, while a team of aquatic veterinarians from the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources conduct a necropsy on a 12-metre-long carcass of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) at Mu Koh Lanta National Park, Krabi province. The official necropsy results reveal that the primary cause of death of this pelagic cetacean is likely organ failure due to illness. However, the presence of plastic food and drink containers inside its digestive system could have contributed to its untimely death, exposing the far-reaching impact of human behaviour in the vast open ocean.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

A juvenile filefish takes shelter in a plastic cup while drifting in the current off Koh Tao, Surat Thani province. About 80 per cent of marine plastic is from land-based sources, and this poses a major challenge, especially for developing nations that have ineffective waste management from the lack of infrastructure to prevent plastic from entering the oceans.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

A pair of Moken tribesmen dive into the reefs of Mu Koh Surin National Park, Phang-Nga. In the past, the Moken tribes used to live a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle along the Andaman coast of Thailand and Myanmar, but nowadays most of their population in Thai waters has abandoned traditional fishing and adopted a sedentary life, working in the tourism industries as tour guides or souvenir vendors instead, raising some concern on the potential disappearance of the marine culture of these sea nomads.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

Marine scientists collect sediment samples and specimens of dead marine life to assess the ecological impact on a contaminated beach in Rayong after an oil spill. An estimated 180,000-200,000 litres of crude oil leaked from an underwater pipeline in early 2022. Mortality of marine animals near the beach was observed during the first several days after the spill, but the long-term impact on the communities of sandy beach organisms is still unknown and is being monitored by Thai marine biologists.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai
In a sunlit shallow bay, a pair of researchers attach recovered coral fragments onto an electrified artificial reef structure, which is reported to help promote the growth and resilience of the fragments once transplanted in Surat Thani. Progress of conservation and research on Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, enjoyed reasonable success, initiated by years of an effort spearheaded by the strong local community with additional support from government agencies.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

Marium, an orphaned dugong, takes a nap after lunch in the arms of its caretaker while being raised in the natural seagrass environment at Koh Libong in Trang province. The young dugong died four months later from a combination of stress and plastic ingestion. Public sympathy for the young mammal, after its untimely death, led to the creation of a national plan for dugong conservation and an upcoming establishment of a new marine protected area.
Photo: Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14: Life below Water)
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

Since being conceived in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “sustainable development” has become a buzzword that has helped guide development around the world. The goals have followed a steady trajectory of increased emphasis — from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, strengthening the world’s new development paradigm. At the heart of the SDGs addressed by the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are 17 key goals that call for action by all countries to end poverty and other deprivations. These must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests, according to the UN. The only challenge is: how to translate all those goals into a strong commitment and action. To flesh out the ideas so that people can understand them easily and therefore take action, Bangkok Tribune has come up with a new project: “SDGs I The Depth of Field”, using its signature style of photojournalism — storytelling through photo essays — to interpret and translate the ideas and challenges behind the goals into powerful visual stories told through the lenses of noted photographers.