the same old story: where did all those fish go?

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“We used to fill the boat in just two hours. And the fish were this big ....”

It’s the fishing story of planet Earth, told in similar words in countless languages by grandfathers on every continent.  It's Phuket’s story too. Of course there are always a few fish here and there, and on a lucky day you can catch just about anything.  However, the Andaman Sea has taken a battering by the Thai commercial fleet, the world's fifth biggest.  Most Thai trawlers now roam the waters of other countries because their own seas have been so thoroughly dredged and pillaged.

Phuket does indeed have a sports fishing industry, though it's neither very big nor modern.  Still, a day out in a boat fishing near the islands makes a great break from life in beachfront resorts, and children love it.  Families can mix fishing with an island excursion.  
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However, for the more serious billfish angler, Phuket has one excellent surprise – the sailfish, outlined below. 
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By law, trawlers are not permitted to drop nets within 3 kilometres of any shore in the country.   The law, however, is not enforced and right here on Phuket it is common to see commercial fishing boats hauling their nets just a few hundred meters offshore.  From time to time the destructive commercial trawlers also come into conflict with artisanal fishing families out just to fill their family pots. The sea bed in many parts of the country is being dredged destructively clean.
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The upbeat side to a fishing trip in the Phuket region is that even if you don't catch many fish, you can generally have a great day out.  The weather is always warm, the ocean is an unfailing 28 degrees and delightful for swimming, and there are many islands on which one can stop for lunch, or a family break. 
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And if you're lucky you'll come back smiling like the people in the photo here.
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trolling, bottom fishing & the continental shelf

The local fishing captains all have their favourite spots for trolling and bottom fishing, but chances are they will steer their boats directly south, towards the pair of beautiful Islands there. Racha Yai Island is 15 kilometres from the bottom of Phuket and its smaller sister 10 kilometres beyond. Bottom fishing is considered fair in these areas.
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Trolling is more a matter of luck and local knowledge. Many people have spent a long day slowly cruising the ocean and come back empty handed, or with a single fish. Listen to your captain and take his advice on whether to troll or bottom fish. But critically, make sure you have enough time to get a good distance away from fished-out Phuket.
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If you have time or speed, the captain might want to take you to the Rok Nok and Rok Nai islands, 100 kilometres southeast of Phuket. These two National Parks islands are pristine beautiful, and their beaches and crystal waters help make them a great outing for a family - but you'll need a boat with the accommodations for an overnight stay. Not surprisingly, commercial fishing boats have been working these Andaman waters for generations.
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The big guys of the ocean, the marlin and other big billfish, are believe to lurk in size and numbers along the continental drop off, some 60 kilometres west of Phuket. Not many boats are well enough equipped for such trips, and only a few have tried it, with mixed results. This is something waiting for the future, for the adventurous and for the well-equipped. The competition out there is said to be Japanese long-liners, who, some have suggested, have an intimate knowledge of the entire Andaman Sea and its fish resources, and are constantly working them over.
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the sailfish is Phuket's great fishing secret

In spite to the negative words about Phuket's waters being over-fished, this island harbours one great fishing secret – the sailfish.
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Early in the monsoon season, about June, the sailfish take a break from their migrations around the Andaman basin to eat and, well, just hang out along Thailand's Andaman coastal waters. They come in the thousands, and are readily seen at the surface, lolling around as if on a sunbathing holiday, flashing fins out of the water and only diving off when a boat comes within a few metres of them.
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Some days it is much easier to catch them on a camera than a hook. The sleek, beautiful fish can often be observed nudging and playing with a fisherman's bait, with only the occasionally one biting. But an occasional one from so many is enough.
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The leaping and splashing of the sail fish is both a spectacle and a saviour. To ball up prey they leaping high out of the water and crash down on their sides, time and again. Some days when they won't bite this leaping-fish spectacle becomes the main show. It takes attention off efforts to catch one, and leaves fishermen awed and happy they have spent the day among such performing fish, even when they can't catch one. The sailfish and its spectacular displays are the saviour of Phuket’s reputation as a fishing destination. It’s a dummy fisherman who can’t hook at least one sailfish during this season in Phuket. Most of the major fishing boats here practice tag-and-release, giving hope that this Andaman Sea population can survive.
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Yet perhaps the sailfish’s biggest advantage in the survival stakes is its tasteless flesh, and the fact that Thais don’t like to eat them. It's the cheapest fish in the market, on the few occasions it gets there. Otherwise the Thai fishing fleet would have taken them all out long ago.
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squid fishing is top fun, and more productive than ever

It's not everyone's choice, but fishing for squid anywhere is Thailand is almost certain to bring great results. And fun. Then, if you have a frying pan and hot oil onboard, you can enjoy the spoils of the catch within minutes. Freshly caught and fried squid is about the best compliment one can find to a cold beer or glass of wine.
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But why squid when virtually all other creatures of the sea have been decimated in the past generation? Squid are blooming and blossoming in seas that have had their major predators removed – big fish. So while fish catches have declined by up to 90%, squid are going and growing stronger than ever.
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Chalong Bay is the centre of a small fishing fleet

Chalong Bay with its 700 metres long jetty is the centre of Phuket's small recreational fishing fleet. There are a few modern fishing craft here, though the number changes from season to season. Fishing has not been one of Phuket's big successes, and a number of game fish companies that have set up over the years, both Thai and foreign, have been forced to pull out.
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The family that owns the famous Kan Eang Restaurants also has a small fleet of more traditional Thai wooden craft under Aloha Tours. They offer a good range of boats for virtually any purpose one can think of, fishing included. They have a few captains who know exactly where, when and how to catch those wily sail fish. And where to look for reef fish.
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Over the years many fishing tour businesses have opened and closed in Phuket - some leaving because there were not enough fish, others because the supply of customers rises and falls radically with the fickle tourism industry. Yet others were forced out by the difficulties foreigners face doing business in Thailand. The red and white fishing boat seen in many photos here, Yahoo, was one of the pioneers of the industry here. The British owner left after getting cheated in business - by a foreign partner.
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Who to charter a boat from? One can search online for more up-to-date info on who is who, and who remains in the fishing boat charter business in Chalong. Otherwise, come to Chalong, where all fishing businesses base themselves, walk around to see the shopfronts, then walk in and talk.
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by John Everingham
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