Blue Guru’s Ocean Action Project aims to improve protection for sharks & rays at threat from fishing boats in North Andaman Sea, supported by our sponsor - Project AWARE.
Last month we reported that sightings of sharks had increased from 12% to 27% and sightings of rays had increased from 8% to 10% in Surin & Similan National Parks over the past 2 dive seasons. Given the significant decline in shark & ray sightings between 2008-12, these were unexpected but very pleasing findings from a conservation perspective. They are particularly positive, as fishing remains a larger industry than tourism in Kuraburi, the mainland port to Surin National Park.
As the economic value of eco- tourism is likely to have more influence than conservation arguments for protecting sharks & rays, Blue Guru also asked all customers on National Park trips to complete a short questionnaire giving their views about sharks, rays & fishing boats at National Park sites.
The opinions of 423 customers were gathered last season, compared to 285 customers during the previous dive season, adding weight to the voice of the ecotourist.
67% of customers said that the chance to see sharks & rays whilst diving/snorkelling was the only or main reason for their visit to the National Parks. If sharks & rays disappeared from these “protected” waters, this could result in a substantial drop in revenue for the National Parks and local Thais who run snorkelling operations, resorts, restaurants & transport services.
Thankfully 93% of customers surveyed said they would definitely or very likely recommend diving/snorkelling in the National Parks based on the diversity of marine life seen during their trip. As apex predators, sharks are vital in maintaining a healthy balance of species throughout the coral reef ecosystem & food web. Thankfully the diversity & abundance of marine life in Surin & Similan National Parks remains world class, with numerous whale sharks sightings making last season probably the best ever.
32% of customers saw a shark & 20% saw a ray but 70% saw fishing boats in the National Park. Whilst it is great that a fair number of tourists get to see sharks or rays, it is sad that significantly more see fishing boats. Fishing is prohibited within 3km of National Park islands. However, fishing boats are still allowed to enter no-fishing zones for protection & mooring.
We asked customers what they thought about the current no-fishing zone regulations. 91% thought that the 3km limit should be expanded so that there was no gap between the currently separate zones around Surin Islands & Richelieu Rock. This would enable juvenile marine life born in Surin Islands’ mangroves and maturing in nurseries on Surin Islands’ coral reefs to have safe passage to Richelieu Rock’s open water soft coral pinnacles. Connected Marine Protected Areas have proven to benefit fishing industries in the wider area, as fish can reach maturity, reproduce and maintain sustainable stock levels.
49% of customers also thought that fishing boats should be banned from entering the no-fishing zones. Whilst it is recognised that Surin Islands can give boats protection from storms, it makes it extremely difficult to police the no-fishing policy. The National Park does not have sufficient resources to approach & inspect every boat travelling through National Park waters, so there is a chance that some fishing boats are illegally fishing within protected zones. The National Parks also receive mooring fees from fishing boats, so this is another economic challenge.
The next step is to produce a persuasive report that can be shared with key Thai stakeholders & conservation allies. We believe that any improvement in measures to protect sharks & rays must be championed by Thai nationals to be sure of acceptance & success.