The Gulf of Thailand is one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine environments on the planet. Hundreds of species of corals, crustaceans and fish coexist in a complex patchwork of reefs and rocky pinnacles that stretch over 320,000 square kilometres of warm tropical water. Unsurprisingly, this habitat has been a crucial resource for local people for centuries. Communities have developed and thrived all along the coast, to the point where the Thai fishing industry has swelled to become one of the largest anywhere in the world. However, away from the common catches of prawn and Pacific mackerel, there is a shadowy specialism that is claiming the lives of hundreds of Thai fishermen every year.
Sea snakes possess some of the most potent venom in the animal kingdom. These aquatic reptiles are supremely suited to life at sea, with flattened bodies and paddle-like tails perfectly adapted for gliding effortlessly through water. There are around 70 species of sea snake that spend their lives hunting for fish in the shallow reefs of the world’s tropics. Though many are benign, a single drop of their powerful neurotoxin can kill up to three people at once. Yet, every year, hundreds of fishermen risk their lives in the pursuit of this deadly catch.
For such a potentially dangerous harvest, the process is shockingly rudimentary. Small crews of anywhere between seven to 25 fishermen set out to sea at night, before using bait and torchlight to attract squid and small fish. The snakes, whether tempted by the promise of easy prey or lured by the beguiling lights above them, soon rise to the surface, where they are fished out of the water by hand. The creatures are then dumped by the hundred in plastic pools and buckets filled with seawater, before they are sorted and separated - again by hand - by buyers who stroll barefoot amongst piles of potentially lethal animals. The nonchalance with which the fishermen go about this incredibly dangerous task is nothing short of extraordinary.
Clearly, there are huge risks in this business. Accidents can and do happen. A reporter for National Geographic stated that over a two day period he spent observing the crews, he saw seven separate bites - though there were fortunately no fatalities. While effective antivenoms have been available for a number of years, they are in incredibly short supply on the remote fishing vessels. Therefore, any bites are likely to be extremely serious. With no useful modern medicine available, fishermen resort to more primitive methods. Each member of a crew carries a razor blade with them at all times, which they use to quickly pierce their flesh and extract the venom in the event of a bite. Ground rhinoceros horn and crushed garlic - neither of which have any medicinal value - are also rubbed onto a wound.
Despite the risks, the rewards for working a sea snake fishing vessel can be great. The creatures are greatly prized in markets across Asia, highly valued for their versatile and tasty meat. Sea snake turns up on menus everywhere from South Korea to Malaysia, and is typically served fried or in a flavoursome broth alongside chilli and noodles. Offal, in particular the heart and liver, are considered delicacies and thought of as highly beneficial for pregnant women. In street markets, it’s not uncommon to see snakes submerged and preserved in glass jars of rice wine.
In addition to their meat, sea snakes are also highly prized for their rumoured medical benefits. Their blood, when mixed with alcohol, can supposedly positively impact male virility, while extracted venom is used in some cultures as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps the most successful product is known as “sea snake glue”, which is marketed across Asia as a cure for ailments ranging from insomnia to anorexia. The size of both the meat and medicinal markets means that there is serious money to be made by risking your life sea snake fishing.
Thanks to rising demand in the marketplace, the industry has exploded in recent years. A sea snake fishing fleet that once numbered between 20 and 30 vessels has swelled to contain over 700. These ships scour the sea every night, bringing in as many as 80 tonnes of sea snake every year. Given that each animal weighs no more than 500 grams, the numbers involved are staggering. Ships regularly return from expeditions sagging in the water, weighed down with their catch. At port, expert fishermen can weigh, sort and categorise as many as 60 live snakes in less than five minutes, proving that what may look like a basic operation is actually a well-oiled machine.
Unsurprisingly, the scale of the industry is prompting concerns over sustainability. The fishermen themselves acknowledge that their catch is coming increasingly hard to come by, with sea snake numbers having fallen significantly since 2009. Lack of regulation makes it incredibly difficult to get a true grasp of the situation, and some species may already be at risk of extinction. As key predatory links in the food chain, the removal of sea snakes from the delicate Thai marine ecosystem could have a variety of far-reaching, unforeseen consequences. Any change to this environment not only threatens the creatures that live there, but also the people who rely on the sea’s bounty.
It’s clear that sea snake fishing is a risky business, not just for the fishermen who put themselves in harms way, but for the region as a whole. While demand remains high and there is still money to be made, it seems that the problem will only get worse in a region that continues to be plagued by poverty. The only hope is to reevaluate the nature of the entire industry. If sea snake fishing continues much longer unchecked, it may be too late to save both the animals themselves and the communities that they provide for.