Assessing erosion, recycling ghost nets and other environmental news from coastal Thailand

Island Wrap #32: Environment & Travel edition for March 12-25, 2021

Welcome to the Island Wrap, your bi-weekly window to Thai islands and coastal areas. For the first time ever, I’m splitting the Wrap in two because there is just so much to discuss. Today’s edition covers environment, wildlife, weather and travel. A second post drops tomorrow to dig into the Covid-19 situation, developments with reopening the country to inbound tourism and other curated news.

In the future, I’ll probably keep divvying the Wrap into two posts as long as there’s a lot to discuss on the Covid-19 / reopening side of things, which is likely to be the case for a while. The point is to keep it from getting too long and overwhelming. As always, thank you kindly for reading Thai Island Times.

I’ve published two articles since the last Island Wrap. First, I ask what it will take for Thailand to scrap quarantine for inbound tourists, and I’ll have some follow up on that in tomorrow’s post. The other story hones in on ‘the in-between moments’ of travel by recalling a bowl of jungle curry during a storm in Kaeng Krachan.

An article next week will take you into the Eastern Gulf coastal panhandle of Trat province to hang with a courageous crew who removes explosive mines from the forest, and to check out the beaches in ‘the narrowest part of Thailand.’ Also stay tuned for a very serious article on the 1st of April.

Over on Couchfish, Stuart shares memories from a Thai Andaman trip with stops at Ko Bulon Leh and Ko Lao Liang, both of which rank among my favorite Thai islands, although for very different reasons. He also offers more from Cambodia, including the Tonle Sap and a city he calls “Southeast Asia’s armpit.

Pick of the Wrap: CHARITY

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) works to achieve “environmental security through a human rights lens” on five continents, including via several projects in Southeast Asia. Last July, EJF launched a collaboration with 47 fishing communities on the Thai Gulf coast, from Songkhla to Rayong, to remove harmful ‘ghost nets’ from the sea and recycle them into useful things. “Together they have removed eight tons of discarded plastic fishing nets from the ocean that have been recycled to make over 50,000 items — including visors for Covid-19 protection,” according to a recent report. Ghost nets are a menace to marine life, as you’ll see further down this Wrap in sea turtle news and a video about EJF’s work in Thailand.

Weather and shipwrecks

Some of the year’s first big storms hit Thailand last week, bringing flash floods to Phetchaburi and Chonburi as Ko Lanta and other parts of the Thai Andaman faced heavy rain and grey skies at times. When not raining, it is hot.

Two fishermen are lucky to be alive after their boat capsized off Hat Lek in the Eastern Gulf. They spent hours adrift, miles from shore, before fellow fishers came to their rescue shortly before dark. Another fisherman sadly drowned after falling overboard near Ko Kho Khao in the Upper Andaman last week.

Off the coast of Nakhon Si Thammarat, at least one of 10 boats carrying fishers who have been using illegal types of fishing nets rammed a Fisheries Dept. patrol boat during a late-night chase, inflicting serious injuries on some of the five officials on board. Bangkok Post reports “frequent clashes between fishermen using illegal gear and Fisheries officials” in the area.

Action on erosion?

“Solving the problem of coastal erosion in a systematic and sustainable manner” is the goal of officials, scientists and engineers who are now chewing on the preliminary results of a nationwide erosion survey conducted by the Dept. of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) over recent months. Covering all 23 coastal provinces, it may be the most comprehensive erosion study ever conducted in Thailand.

“Many of these areas are (negatively) affected by the original construction of coastal defense structures, which lacked proper study beforehand,” said Varawut Silpa-archa, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. Excessive shoreline development and rising seas are also blamed for this chronic, worsening problem.

No final decisions have been made yet, but the tentative plan is to put experts in charge of erosion prevention nationwide after years of leaving local administrations and landowners to their own devices. Locals have already built many concrete and/or stone walls — not to mention roads, large resorts and other structures — along Thai coasts. These tend to shift erosion to other areas, at best, and surveyors found that, in many cases, they’ve been ineffective at preventing erosion at all.

As with so many chronic problems in Thailand, be it construction on protected forest land or roads that ignore pedestrian safety, this recent push to confront erosion is an example of authorities seeking remedies long after negative impacts become entrenched. Even with an earnest, expert-led effort, solving the erosion problem at this point may be an insurmountable challenge. I wish them success.

Ocean garbage

The amount of effort that Thai society is putting into cleaning up the ocean is extraordinary — and it’s happening from top to bottom.

The government recently passed a resolution that could further limit single-use plastic and styrofoam items by year’s end. Of course, in a country where plastic is a key part of the manufacturing structures of powerful corporations, and where considerable vagueness is often written into the laws, I won’t expect real change until I see it. Still, it appears to be an official step in the right direction.

What is undeniable are the many clean-up efforts happening throughout the coastal Thai provinces. Communities, groups of friends and non-profit organizations are all gathering regularly to clear rubbish from shoreline and seafloor. If you happen to be in Phuket, an island-wide clean up is scheduled there for April 1st.

Fusing national and local clean-up efforts, those behind a permanent DMCR project have installed floating rubber blockades at the surfaces of 23 rivers in all coastal Thai regions to catch floating rubbish before it reaches the sea. Agency officials provide the hardware and maintenance, but locals in each area volunteer to collect and dispose of the rubbish. Recycling operations incentivize them through monetary compensation for the plastic bottles, fishing debris and other items they collect.

But Thailand (and the rest of the world) still has a long, long way to go when it comes to properly cleaning up the seas. Case in point: a recent influx of harmful tar pebbles washing up at Ko Samet and mainland coasts in Rayong province. A Thai PBS reporter also shared photos of what appears to be crude oil on the Nakhon Si Thammarat coast. In both cases, the origins of these pollutants is unknown.

Coral and urchins

An update on a reef rehabilitation project that uses the legs of an abandoned petroleum platform for coral growth shows promising results near Ko Phangan. The same goes for a young coral rehab site off Ko Libong, while new coral was planted at sites near Ko Phi Phi Leh and Khao Lak. The latter uses hollow, half-egg shaped concrete structures with holes like Swiss cheese for coral to grow in.

More than 1,000 spiky red sea urchins washed up on Phuket’s famous Patong Beach for the second time this month. The unusual phenomenon is reportedly caused by an algae bloom close to shore, which in turn may be the result of fertilizer and other pollutants in wastewater runoff. Urchins eat the algae, and both of them are being left high and dry when the strong spring tide recedes. While the urchins are sent back out to sea, the algae — 70 tons in one day — is disposed of on land.

Dugongs, whales and dolphins

Elders of Ko Libong recall seeing “hundreds of dugongs” decades ago, as quoted in a National Geographic Thai report that goes on to blame an increase in sea waste and boat traffic for declining dugong numbers over recent decades. It ends on a positive note by sharing the work of a decade-old, islander-formed conservation group which surveys seagrass, draws up guidelines for boat drivers and spreads awareness on how to keep the dugongs safe and healthy. The formal education of every Ko Libong child now includes hands-on conservation skills in their home environment.

The two Bryde’s whales that have been munching on spawning fish in the Ang Thong islands since early this month were joined by two more of these wan bruda on March 16th. Though commonly spotted in the Upper Gulf, these roughly 13-meter-long whales (when fully grown) are not often seen in the Ko Samui vicinity. Here’s a Bangkok Post report featuring a video of the whales.

Marine officials caught up to a bottlenose dolphin that had wandered up the murky Khao Saming River in Trat, and later released it near Ko Chang. A striped dolphin swam up to Nai Yang Beach on Phuket, while footage shows pink humpback dolphins surprising onlookers at Ko Wua Talap in the Ang Thong islands.

Back on Phuket, authorities want to know who slashed open the head of a young spotted dolphin found on the rocks at Ao Sai Khu. A follow-up report by The Phuket News says the dolphin was dead before the cuts were made, but tampering with the carcass of a protected species is illegal in Thailand.

Sea turtle time

Another 66 leatherback sea turtle hatchlings nosed out of a nest on Bang Kwan Beach in Phang Nga (see video), raising this record-breaking season’s totals to 798 hatchlings with two unhatched nests left. Expected to hatch late this month and in early April, both remaining nests are also in Khao Lampi - Hat Thai Mueang National Park on the mainland north of Phuket. Patient observers are welcome.

The first green sea turtle nest found on Ko Libong in at least a decade also hatched recently, with the fantastic result of 77 healthy hatchlings from 80 eggs caught on video. Over on the Upper Gulf, a green sea turtle nested on a beach in Thap Sakae district of Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

Also in the heavily polluted Thai Gulf, the dead body of a green sea turtle sadly washed up tangled in a ghost net in Bang Saphan. A second turtle carcass of the same species was found further south down the Gulf coast in Nakhon Si Thammarat with a belly full of plastic bags, fishing debris and crude oil.

Humans cause many sea turtle deaths, but we also rescue many sea turtles from the death traps we create. Locals on Ko Tao nursed a hawksbill sea turtle back to good health after it swallowed a fishing hook. A man in Bang Saphan rescued a green sea turtle from a rope tied to buoys (video). And fishers in Samut Prakan are caring for a hawksbill sea turtle found with deep wounds to some of its fins.

Other wildlife news

Phuket’s governor told residents to be on the look out for a two-meter crocodile spotted in Chalong Bay on March 15th. The search has since moved over to the west coast after an extensive sift through the bay came up empty. Despite the use of drones and “expert croc catchers” from Surat Thani, the elusive croc remains at large. Also on Phuket, wranglers snatched a four-meter python from a Karon resort.

Writing for Asia Sentinel, conservationist Greg McCann assesses the current state of wildlife in Southeast Asia in a report that partly focuses on coastal Thailand — this publication is paywalled but worth considering for Asia news beyond the ordinary. And finally, a disturbing piece for Southeast Asia Globe by Mailee Osten-Tan reveals shocking conditions at “the world’s saddest zoo” atop a Bangkok mall.

Food and travel

The resurrection of the fiery isle: Phi Phi IslandsLuke Yeung for Bangkok 101
Both underwater and drone photography show off the beauty of one of Thailand’s most famous island groups during the pandemic.

The diving guide to Ko PhanganPhanganist
This is one of several recently written guides from the Phanganist crew. Others are devoted to kite surfing and budget lodgings on Ko Phangan, as well as kid-friendly activities and fabulous sunset spots on Ko Samui.

Dreaming of Thailand: Five places to soothe pandemic stress, with shorter quarantines aheadRonan O’Connell for The Straits Times
This one might give you the old travel itch via “deserted beach after deserted beach” and “mangrove majesty” in Krabi, just two of the sections in a list of spots in Thailand to keep in mind as you plan that next journey.

House hunting in Thailand: An indoor-outdoor sanctuary for $1.6 millionAlison Gregor for The New York Times
If you want to take your travel plans to another level, check out this report on some of the current real-estate offerings on Ko Samui.

Phuket distillery lifts spirits with brand-new gin loaded with Thai ingredientsCraig Sauers for BK Magazine
Gin lovers, this spot on Chalong Bay has your name on it.

On Bangkok’s ‘firefly island,’ go on a lightbug safari with the man trying to save themNym Korakot Punlopruksa for Coconuts Bangkok
Yes, fireflies are still alive in the megacity’s watery ‘green lung.’

Seeking SamuiAsian Travels with Simon Ostheimer
A look at the island today and in 1965, when “one of the first Western travel stories about Ko Samui” was published in a Swiss magazine.

The head of the dragonKrabi Guide
Details on hiking the scenic Khao Ngon Nak trail during the pandemic.

Thailand to nominate tom yum kung for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage listThai PBS World
If approved, this famously aromatic soup would join traditional Thai massage and khon mask dancing on the intangible cultural heritage list.

Bangkok, Thailand seen at night from orbitKeith Cowing for On Orbit
Procrastination alert: I lost a whole hour immersed in this dreamy shot of the entire Upper Thai gulf with the lights on after dark. In addition to Bangkok I can point out Ko Chang, Trat, Chanthaburi, Ko Samet, Rayong, Pattaya, Ko Larn, Chonburi, Ko Si Chang, Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Hua Hin and more. You can also see the Andaman Sea beyond the Tenassarim Mountains and part of the Southern Myanmar coast. Dare to find out which places you can decipher? 🌴