Thailand's Marine Protected Areas: The Last Hope of Thai Seas

During extreme low tide in a starry night, a large field of Staghorn coral (Acropora spp.) emerges from the water, while the tide was receding and seen below the milky way, Koh Bulon Lae, Mu Koh Phetra National Park, Satun Province. According to the recent assessment by Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, ~80% of the shallow reefs of Thailand have degraded, while only ~6% are healthy, thus it is essential to protect the remaining pristine locations for potential recovery in the future.

Moken is the indigenous tribe of the Andaman Sea. In the past, these sea nomads used to live on their house boats for the most part of their lives, living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle among the archipelagos of Thailand and Myanmar. However, at present, the Moken in Thailand have already adopted sedentary lives and seek employment in high-value tourism industry, being souvenir vendors or tour guides, which raise some concerns on the future of these sea nomads.

Aerial scenery of Maya Bay, the world-famous beach of Koh Phi Phi with tour boats and visitors prior the indefinite closure of the bay in 2018 by “Phi Phi model” management program, which is the spearhead for further efforts in sustainable management of marine and coastal zones in Thailand. With its worldwide fame, this filming location of “The Beach” attracted over 5,000 visitors per day during high season, which was way over the carrying capacity of Maya Bay at only 170 visitors per instance.

Crowd of tourists and speedboats fill up the space on the beach of Maya Bay, Hat Nopparat Thara - Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park, Krabi province, Thailand. With its worldwide fame, “the beach” attracted over 5,000 visitors per day during high season, but the number was way over the carrying capacity of Maya Bay, which was estimated to be at 170 visitors per instance.

Large predatory fishes, including longface emperors, trevallies and rainbow runners form a large hunting group, traveling together in search of tasty morsels at Richelieu Rock of Mu Koh Surin National Park, Phang-nga province, Thailand. Since late 2017, divers have been reporting noticeable increases in fish abundance at this popular dive site, which could be partially accredited to the stricter fishing regulations and enforcement in marine protected areas.

A worker sits atop the truck carrying pile of Spanish mackerels (Scomberomorus sp.) during salting process, Prachuab Khiri Khan province, Thailand. The Thai fishing industry has a significant socio-economic role in the southeast Asia region by providing many employment for both Thai and immigrant workers from neighbouring nations in fishing and related seafood-processing industries.

In a sunlit shallow bay at Koh Tao of Suratthani province, a pair of SCUBA divers attach recovered coral fragments onto an electrified artificial reef structure, which helps promoting growth and resilience of the transplanted coral fragments. With years of efforts spearheaded by the strong local community with additional supports by the government agencies, marine conservation projects on this small island in the Gulf of Thailand has enjoyed great success and rapid progress.

Under the golden light of dawn, shrimp farms and palm plantations are seen right at the perimeter of Ao Phang-nga National Park, which remains as the largest mangrove area in Thailand. Mangrove ecosystem serves as the important habitats and nursery areas for countless marine species, while also protects the shore from coastal erosion, however the kingdom has already lost majority of the mangroves areas to a critical level from ongoing threats of unsustainable development and forest encroachment.

A pair of newborn blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) cruise among the roots in a mangrove forest during high tide in search of preys, while gaining protection from larger predators, Mu Koh Surin national park, Phang-nga province, Thailand. This mangrove forest of Koh Surin is one of a few locations in Thai waters that is known as the nursery areas of this coastal shark species in Thai waters, thus these baby sharks can enjoy some momentary protection while residing in this MPA.

Among the vast sandy seafloor, a ~10 metres long Bryde’s whale skeleton laid on its watery grave under the depth of Koh Haa Island, Mu Koh Lanta National Park, Krabi province, Thailand. The cause of death of this individual is still unknown, due to the deteriorated condition of the carcass. Based from the current speculations, it could possibly be from boat coalition, marine pollution or bacterial infection, which are common occurrences for dead cetaceans in Thai waters.

Under the approaching storm, a young whale shark slowly cruises in the warm plankton-rich water near Hin Lak Ngam Islet with several dive boats moored up bringing visitors to see this gigantic shark, Mu Koh Chumphon National Park, Chumphon province, Thailand. With the discovery that young whale sharks often visit this area during monsoon season, Chumphon province has gained an exponential growth in ecotourism industry throughout the past few years.

With the setting sun, a tourist poses with a landing commercial plane on Mai Khao Beach, where Phuket International Airport is located, Phuket province, Thailand. In the past, Mai Khao Beach used to be one of the key nesting grounds of leatherback sea turtle in Thailand, however it has been a decade where no sighting of this protected yet endangered marine reptile has ever been reported again at this beach.

With the heavy reliance on the rich resources of the surrounding two seas, the marine and coastal ecosystems of Thailand have been taken heavy tolls as the cost for the economic growth from intensive exploitation. At the present time, there are 24 Thai MPAs with 2 upcoming additions in pending, which still covers only approximate ~6% of the total area of Thai water. Throughout the past few decades, the management of Thai MPAs has been focused in accommodating mass tourisms, which does not exactly serve the purpose intended that is conservation of resources, and unable to prevent continuous degradation throughout the years. In addition, the regulation and enforcement to prevent pressures in such protected area have been severely limited. However, after 30 years of efforts, the management of the Thai MPAs has been recently improved and revised, which may able to aid the recovery of the marine resources that this kingdom is depending on, being the glimpse of hope for sustainable management of this long exploited waters.