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Urak Lawoi Fishers: From Sea to Table

An Urak Lawoi fisher jumps into the sea with homemade compressor diving equipment while a fish handler looks on from the longtail boat. The demand for good quality fish caught in selective small-scale fisheries among fine-dining restaurants in Thailand is driving a growing trend for more sustainable seafood.

Longtail boats are seen berthed off the beach of Koh Lipe, Satun, during sunset. Koh Lipe is an island in the Adang-Rawi Archipelago, hailed for its picturesque clear water and powdery sand among tourists, but the island is also the home of the Urak Lawoi ethnic group who wandered the islands of the Andaman Sea in the old past.

Traditional fish traps of the Urak Lawoi made with rattan, nets, and metal wire are laid on the sandy beach of Koh Lipe, Satun, prior to being taken out for deployment under the sea by compressor divers.

Rattan wood is laid on the ground after being collected while Urak Lawoi fisher looks for more of the plants in the jungle of the Adang-Rawi Archipelago.

A teenager weaves metal wire onto the rattan frame of an artisanal fish trap in the communal ground of the Urak Lawoi village in Koh Lipe, Satun. The fishing profession is passed down among families as has been for generations. Yet there is declining interest among younger generations to continue this way of life due to laborious work, while the lucrative tourism sector offers an alternative in the waters of this archipelago.

Urak Lawoi fishers run along the bottom of the sea while breathing through rubber hoses connected to an air compressor on their longtail boat. Years of working at sea and traditional knowledge passed on from the elders make Urak Lawoi fishermen extremely proficient at what they do, moving effortlessly underwater with a keen knowledge of the prey they want to catch.

Urak Lawoi divers take a giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis), one of their target species, from the fish trap that was deployed on an underwater pinnacle while the unwanted other fishes are released. With their traditional knowledge of the habitat and reproductive seasonality of various fishes, these divers know how to target different fishes with the way they deploy their trap, while also minimize the bycatch, a stark contrast to most industrial fishing techniques.

Dash-and-dot goatfish (Parupeneus barberinus) are being packed into a plastic bag after a fish handler has finished preparing them with Ikejime, Shinkejime fish slaughtering techniques that greatly improve the taste of the fish. Formerly, goatfishes were not desirable among diners and were considered low-value fish, but the Japanese techniques employed by the fish handler changed that and the goatfishes are now highly sought-after by upscale restaurants in Bangkok.

A fish handler and Urak Lawoi fisher rest and chat at the bow of their longtail boat while traveling to the fishing ground in the wavy sea of the Adang-Rawi Archipelago of Satun, Thailand. By working together to supply high-quality fish to upscale restaurants in Bangkok, the Urak Lawoi fishermen reported that they made three times the income they had before working with the fish handler.

Goatfishes are seen hung for dry aging, while Napol Jantraget, the head chef of Samlor, a Michelin Guide restaurant is seen reflected on the glass of the refrigerator, Bangkok, Thailand. Apart from being a more sustainable option compared to most other seafood caught in non-selective and often destructive fishing gears that are prevalent in Thai waters, the better quality for eating of the fish caught by Urak Lawoi divers led Chef Napol to be among the first customers of these fishermen.

Steamed loin from a goatfish is placed into the prepared “shio koji“ (Fermented rice marinade) sauce with Fat choy (a type of terrestrial cyanobacteria known as Black moss in English, Nostoc flagelliforme) prior to serving. The fish slaughtering techniques of the fish handler drastically change the flavor of the goatfish, and now it is one of the most desired fishes among upscale restaurants that Samlor needs to compete with others to get their hands on these fishes nowadays.

A modified diving mask with a rubber hose attached for compressor diving of the Urak Lawoi is seen on the bow of a long tail boat as they come back from fishing in the Adang-Rawi Archipelago. Although trap fishing is comparatively much more sustainable and selective than most other fishing techniques in Thai waters, more efforts into studying and managing this fishery are still needed to ensure the sustainability and livelihoods of these fishermen.

Fueled by a growing sense of eco-responsibility, demand for fish that are not caught by industrial techniques are on the rise.

Read on National Geographic
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