Falling nets in the Gulf of Thailand

The fleet leaving harbour at sunset The fleet leaving harbour at sunset

Alan Haig-Brown and Ananya Surangpimol explore the falling net fishery in the Gulf of Thailand.

There is a practice amongst many fishing families the world over. A father takes his son fishing as he reaches puberty and can do small jobs on the boat. In modern times this will likely be only during the young man’s school break. So it was for Khun Narong Ruenjit of Paknam Khaem Nu, a fishing port on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand. At 12, Khun Narong began spending his school holidays on his father’s fishing boat catching anchovies and squid. When, at 18 years of age, he completed his schooling he had already learned enough of the ways of fish and the sea to become captain of a boat.

The port at Paknam Khaem Nu is noted for the large number of boats using the falling or drop net method of fishing for anchovies and squid. While purse seines are also used for these species, the falling net can be quite effective. The falling net is a square shaped column of web that is suspended from poles extending out the port or starboard side of a boat. The poles are about the same length as the boat to give the net a square size equivalent to the vessel length.

A heavy lead line of about 500kg allows the web to sink quickly when released around a school of fish that have been gathered at night by lights on the fishing boat. Khun Narong’s first boat was only 14m long so that the net would have been a square with 14m sides.

At 43 years of age, Khun Narong is no longer fishing but owns two boats that he sends out with Thai captains and Burmese or Cambodian crews of 14 men. The crews are paid wages according to Thai law while the captain gets a bonus based on the catch. His current boats are, at 16m long, significantly longer than his first boat and so have nets that are 16m square and 30m deep.

Each evening, just around the time of the 18:00 sunset, the fleet of drop net boats heads out under the bridge that spans the harbour entrance. Crews busy themselves with adjustments to the complex of rigging that supports the net poles as well as the poles that support the lights. But also, like crews the world over, they stand on deck to be seen by those who remain shore-bound or they ignore the watching tourists to enjoy a card game on the cabin top.

The Gulf of Thailand is a relatively shallow saucer shaped body of water with a mean depth of only 45m and maximum depths to 80m. Typically the drop-net boats anchor out in waters shallower than the 30m depth of the net. As it grows dark, Khun Narong’s boats swing out six sets of poles each festooned with seven or eight 1500 watt imported Japanese lights that project a greenish light over the water. An 80kw generator set on the fishing boat provides power for this massive energy draw.

Due to the nature of the net and the web of rigging and poles, it is difficult to fish if the wind is too high. So there are a number of nights in the year on which the boats don’t set their gear. However, in calm weather the crew can settle into wait up to five hours to attract enough fish to make it worthwhile to drop the net. Most boats today have both echosounders and sonar that may be used to decide on a place to drop the anchor, but also to see how many fish have gathered to the lights.

Khun Narong explained that the boats typically anchor in waters over 20m deep but less than the 30m depth of the net. Bottoms on the fishing grounds are fine and free from boulders so that the net’s lead line sits on the bottom effectively trapping the fish that are in the square of the net. Rings with a line similar to that of a purse seine can then be pulled up effectively closing the net’s bottom.

The crew uses a powered capstan and boom to fleet the extra web aboard the boat. When the net is sufficiently ‘dried up’ the concentrated mass of fish can be scooped into a slush mix of ice and water in the fish-hold. On an average night the boat will catch around 20 tubs of 200 kilos each. However this includes a significant amount of slush ice so that the total weight of anchovies will be about two metric tons. Of course this can vary.

The boats can fish squid with the same system and often carry two nets with the same overall dimensions but different web. This allows the fishing of anchovies with a mesh of about one centimeter or squid with a 1.5 inch square mesh. Depending on the time of year, one or the other species will tend to dominate. Recently, after a 10-year absence, commercially viable jellyfish have shown up. These require a three-inch mesh and different storage and handling. Currently ex-vessel prices for the jellyfish are four baht (US$.13) each for the local market. While squid and anchovy can be fished year round the jellyfish are only expected in the rainy season from May to October.

At daybreak, the fleet returns to Paknam Khaem Nu with the first boats slipping under the bridge in the 05:00 darkness, while those that fish further afield will be still coming in two hours later. As the boats come in they go to the private off-loading sites or to a public one owned by the local Wat or temple. In addition to providing pier space, the local wat maintains a fisherman’s shrine near the shore. Here offerings can be made to Ma Ya Nang, the female spirit of the takien tree from which most boats are built. She is also the spirit of the boats and of the sea, and a good spirit for a fisherman to have on his side.

If the boats going to the private piers call ahead to announce that they have fish, a fire will be started in the processing sheds. Those that off-load at the public pier will truck their catch a short distance to a processing shed away from the waterside.

The Thai anchovy fishery has grown significantly, from a subsistence fishery to an export fishery. A 2000 FAO report explains, “After 1982, the boiled-dried anchovy became well known and the foreign market became interested. Therefore, the fisheries for anchovy significantly expanded and boiled-dried and dried anchovies were exported at a high price to Malaysia, Taiwan (Province of China), Japan, Sri Lanka and countries in the middle east.”

The processing facilities share a common design and function. A clay fireplace, open at one end, is filled with six-foot (2m) logs of around three-inch (8cm) diameter. Opposite the open end and about 12-feet (4m) away, a chimney also of brick and clay extends through a tin roof. On the top of the fireplace a water bath, about one foot (30cm) deep and two feet (60cm) wide, boils from the fire under it. Clouds of black and grey smoke from these fires rise over the village at dawn as the fleet returns.

When the catch arrives at the processor in insulated totes or the ubiquitous 200kg barrels, the mix of fish and ice are washed in a saltwater bath. Workers brail them from there into shallow round-baskets, which are then passed along to the end of the boiling water bath. Three workers then move the baskets of fish along the length of the bath, stirring the fish with wooden paddles. This process only lasts for a few minutes until the fish begin to float. Then the baskets are lifted from the water and passed to another worker who spreads the steaming hot fish onto a fine meshed drying frame.

Workers stack these frames onto a dolly and then wheel them outside where they are set, one by one, on long rails made from wooden poles. This process of blanching and spreading is done by mid-morning. By sunset, most of the fish will be sufficiently dried but they can be spread out the next day if required. If it rains, as it often does in the summer months, the frames are moved indoors to continue drying.

While the fishery appears to be very clean with well over 90% being anchovies, there is some bycatch of other small fish which workers remove for a separate, lower valued, market. There is also a significant price variation for different sizes. With a life-cycle of only about one year there is constant recruitment of the smaller more valuable sizes. The smaller anchovy fetch a better price from the middlemen.

While Khun Narong and his wife Khun Pannpass have been successful in growing their business based on the two-boat fleet and some catches that they buy from other boats, their daughter Alice is not satisfied with the returns. “We have all the expenses of paying the boat crews, our employees in the processing, as well as ice and fuel costs for the boats,” she explains, “But when we sell to a middle man we don’t make a very good return on our investment and costs.”

In order to understand international markets, the confident 20-year-old, who is fluent in English, has spent time in Mexico learning Spanish. Currently she is also enrolled in a business degree through Assumption University’s ABAC School of Business. She understands that current markets for Thai anchovies are in Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan but would like to learn more about where her family’s catches are going and how the international fish business works. Such commitment to learn, built on a solid foundation of catching and processing technology, bodes very well for the future of fishing in Paknam Khaem Nu.


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