Community Collaboration for Fisheries Management: Thailand

Photo Credits Jerry and Marcy Monkman
01 Feb 2022

Among the swaths of teak forests and rice fields of northern Thailand is the Ngao River, a tributary of the Salween River that is central to the livelihoods of neighboring villages. Without refrigeration and with regular seasons of resource scarcity, many families travel to the riverbanks every day to fish. But in the early 1990s, communities of Pgagayaw, or Karen, indigenous peoples noticed a decline in fish, partly due to people from outside their communities using illegal fishing methods to overharvest. With the help of a local NGO, Pgagayaw communities met to discuss grassroots conservation solutions.

In 1993, one village established a no-take fish reserve, marked by colorful flags and riverbanks scattered with hand-painted signs warning of fishing penalties. The idea has spread, and today there are over 50 community freshwater reserves connecting fisheries across the Ngao River watershed. These reserves rely on local enforcement for their success and communal agreements to respect the freshwater reserves’ requirements, with the most effective reserves found closest to villages.

Aaron Koning, a postdoctoral researcher from the Global Water Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, studied 23 of these reserves across 80.5 kilometers of the Ngao River. Although the fish reserves only protect two percent of the river area, this study revealed that they are invaluable refuges from the overfishing that has affected fish abundance and diversity.

Koning’s study concludes that compared to adjacent fished areas, the reserves harbor 27 percent more fish species, 124 percent higher fish density and 2,247 percent higher average biomass. These results were amplified in the most central reserves, indicating that interconnection between protected areas leads to greater ecological benefits.

This is a potentially scalable model that could protect fish biodiversity and offset the consequences of overfishing in other freshwater systems, and could significantly contribute to the protections of the remarkable Amazon, Congo, and Mekong Rivers. The success of the Ngao River valley reserves is apparent with only a glance. Overlooks hang above the river basin where community members can witness the shoals of fish, proof that their grassroots conservation strategies are transformative for their livelihoods and lands.

Photo Credits: Jerry and Marcy Monkman