Samui Wining & Dining
Even though it’s a world-class tourist destination, Samui still relies very much on its fishing industry.

Even though it’s a world-class tourist destination, Samui still relies very much on its fishing industry.In the early 60s, when Khun Urai was a little girl living on Samui’s north coast, life was very different to how it is today. “As a kid,” she recalls wistfully, “we used to go down to the beach in the afternoon and start putting together a fire. My parents would be out fishing, and when they returned, we’d cook some of what they’d caught over it, and that would be our dinner.” There weren’t any hotels back then – the first tourists hadn’t yet come to the island, and its heady future wasn’t to start for another decade. Samui depended on its fishing and farming. “There was plenty to go round,” says Khun Urai. “As a child you could wander into anyone’s house in the village – there were no locks – and just help yourself to food. If you took a flashlight and went out on a boat at night and shone it into the sea, the fish would just appear, attracted by the light. The sea was full of fish.” It was an idyllic life, and she grew up with happy memories.


Something of that way of life still remains, even to this day. Walk along many of the beaches on the island in the early morning, and you’ll see people fishing for their food. In Maenam you’ll find, for example, old people standing utterly still in waist-deep water with home-made fishing rods, waiting for their daily catch. Khun Benjawan, almost 80, throws out a line into the sea and pulls down her lampshade-like hat closer over her face. “Let’s see if I can get something,” she says, but the laugh that goes with her words is tinged by uncertainty. “We’re all worried about fishing. Fewer fish now. Things aren’t the same.” She’s momentarily distracted by the loud whine of a longtail boat going past, and then her eyes go back to the sea with casual determination. The longtails have a car engine mounted on the back, and from the engine a long manoeuvrable pole sticks out with a propeller on the end. The boatman stands up the entire time he’s riding the waves, and manoeuvres the boat by moving the propeller. Even though it’s a world-class tourist destination, Samui still relies very much on its fishing industry.It requires great strength. He’ll go out to sea, throw out a net and trawl the waters for a catch that he’ll sell to families and restaurants. So far, so idyllic.

But these traditional ways of fishing are swamped by the commercial interests that now predominate. Everything on Samui has become more commercial, and that includes the fishing. The industry has become ever more important on Samui, even though the main earner is now tourism. With more than a million visitors coming to the island every year, and with an enormously increased population, not just of locals, but also expatriates from every corner of the globe, the pressure’s on to land enough fish to feed a demanding populace. And not just on Samui or even Thailand; the country is the third-biggest exporter of fish and fish products in the world. Thai exports are worth more than a chunky seven billion dollars a year, and Thailand is avidly trying to export even more. Only China still beats Thailand, seconded by Norway.


Night time, and a few kilometres west of Koh Tao, Khun Somsak has been tracking the shifting movements on his sonar, and exasperatedly moves on further from the shore, looking for shoals of fish. He’s not alone, and around him other boats are doing the same, chasing after fish that aren’t so much elusive, but just aren’t there at all due to over-fishing. Khun Somsak uses, as all the boats around him do, very powerful lights that shine down through the water to attract the fish. The view from the shore of Koh Tao is impressive. There are so many lights it looks like there’s an entire town strung out on the horizon. Many holidaymakers just presume that they’re looking at the mainland, and are surprised at how densely populated it is. They’re even more surprised to find out that the phantom town they believe they’re looking at is in reality just countless fishing boats out to sea.


There’s no let-up in the competition to catch fish, and just to break even is getting harder every year. And though the country continues, as a whole, to be successful, it’s hard for the individual boat-owners to bring in a profitable catch. Well over 1,000 kg of fish is needed by operators like Khun Somsak just to keep their operation going.


Morning in the small fishing port of Nathon. Small clusters of fishing boats have returned to moor up here, one against the other. It’s all go. It’s been a good night for most, reckons one of the captains, and the overall atmosphere seems upbeat. And what about the coming night? “Same,” he says and flashes a smile. “Maybe.”


Large amounts of ice are being poured into the holds of the boats, while crewmembers go about the business of cleaning the fish and the decks. Everything’s done with casual but breath-taking speed. Cramped tightly together, the crews on each boat are a tight choreography of intent and dexterity, unloading the night’s catch and mopping up. There are always nets to repair and equipment to check. Life at sea is busy – even when you get back to land.Even though it’s a world-class tourist destination, Samui still relies very much on its fishing industry. To the untrained eye, everything seems to be happening simultaneously, and the next step in the process has already long since started. There’s an urgency to sort all the fish, weigh them and sell them.


A lot of the sorted fish will end up in the island’s markets, where they’ll be sold individually or bought by hotels and restaurants. Everyone here at the port is an old hand, and knows that freshness is the main concern for everyone. Samui’s restaurants are renowned for their fresh fish, and since this is an island, the diners expect nothing less. The next step is to load up the trucks and take the fish to the market.


As the island heads into the future, there’s more and more talk about letting the seas restock, and having stricter controls concerning what’s fished, when and in what quantity. Meanwhile, visit any market – go to the fish market at Big Buddha for example, or the large market at Laem Din in Chaweng – and you’ll see there’s still more than enough for everyone. Seafood remains incredibly popular on Samui, and some restaurants are now demanding that the fish that gets to them has been correctly caught by legal boats that carry crew that are licensed. Consumers, too, are also concerned. After all, where would Samui be without its seafood restaurants?


 Dimitri Waring


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