There are presently a total of 26 marine national parks in Thailand, of which 21 are formally legislated, while 5 are in different stages of the process of legislation. The 21 legally-recognised parks cover area about 5,810 km². 4 national parks are proposed for World Heritage status; they are Mu Koh Tarutao, Mu Koh Surin, Mu Koh Similan, all 3 of which are popular Thailand scuba diving destinations, and Phang Nga Bay. All thee parks are located in the Andaman Sea. A part of Mu Koh Phayam has been declared a Biosphere Reserve.
The overall responsibility for national marine parks in Thailand lies with the Royal Forest Department (RFD). Previously the National Park Division administered the terrestrial and marine parks. However, following a reorganisation within the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) in 1993 a separate Marine National Park Division (MNPD) was set up and became responsible for protection, management and operation of the marine national parks.
The major responsibilities of the MNPD are:
While the Natural Resources Conservation Office develops the general policies for the marine national parks, it is the marine national parks themselves that are directly responsible for the administration of parks. At the local park level, the park superintendent, supported by 2 assistants, administer the parks. Ranger teams composed of 1 ranger and 11 temporary workers carry out the day-to-day work. The superintendent reports directly to the director of the MNPD. In accordance to the National Park Act, national park management is supervised by a committee at national level, called the National Park Committee.
The protection and management of the marine national parks requires legislation for implementation and enforcement. The National Park Act is the major legislation regulating the marine national parks. The act covers all land, which has been determined as national parks. It covers areas such as mountains, creeks, swamps, canals, marshes, basins, waterways, lakes, islands and seashore. The law describes the protection of the parks. According to the law, the park flora and fauna is protected, and any trade or transport of species out of the park is not allowed. The act also provides the legislative means to establish a national park. A national park may be declared over any public land where there are natural features or scenic areas that are of interest, to preserve it for the benefit of research, public education and pleasure.
The RFD has a set of criteria for the declaration of a national park area in Thailand:
Normally, the process of establishment of national parks takes at least 2 years and many parks took more than 5 years to establish.
The management of conservation areas is crucial and significant for the national environment and ecological systems. The objectives are to preserve existing flora and fauna for research and educational purposes, recreational purposes such a scuba diving, snorkeling and sailing, and for improved living conditions of the people, since natural resources also help people to generate an income.
The national park management plan is to:
Revenues are generated by the parks through the collection of entrance fees, user fees such as for diving, accommodation, fines, fees on tourist vessels anchoring or staying overnight, concession from any private tourist service activities such as food shops, souvenir shops, canoe services etc. Income is transferred into a fund handled by the Revenue National Park Committee in RFD, chaired by the General Director. The committee disburses funds to terrestrial and marine parks. There is a separate budget for the marine national parks. The funds provided by the committee are disbursed to finance park project proposals. These proposals comprise activities in the fields of nature conservation and protection, technical research, and park service provision. Only legally established parks are able to collect fees from any activities within the parks. In the last decade, the amount of parks revenue has risen to approximately 0.35 million US dollars a year.
The marine national park system provides both direct and indirect benefits to the Thai society. These protected areas contain diverse and important ecosystems and biological resources. Such habitat as mangrove forests, coral reefs, sea grass beds, soft sediment communities and beaches not only provide a home for many important marine species such as turtles and dugongs, but also form the basis for several subsistence benefits to the local people and contribute to the valuable Thailand dive and tourism industries, research and education.
Over 50 percent of all coral reefs in Thailand are included in existing marine national parks. According to many studies, notably by Phuket Marine Biological Research Centre, the parks' coral reefs are in better condition than those in other areas, although they are not as healthy as they were 10-15 years ago. Such parks, as Mu Koh Surin (which contains the Surin Islands and Richelieu Rock), Mu Koh Similan (which contains the Similan Islands, Koh Bon Island and Koh Tachai), Mu Koh Lanta (which contains Hin Daeng and Hin Muang) and Mu Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand, contain some of the finest coral reefs in the country in term of size, species diversity and condition and these sites are of international significance.
Coral reef areas in marine parks play an important role in the economic development of Thai society. Not only do they offer critical habitat to numerous marine species, which support fisheries activities and provide a significant food source for people, they also generate huge incomes for the country in term of tourism activities. About 70% of total incomes from tourism are generated by marine tourism activities.
Several coastal and marine parks of Thailand were established in order to protect the mangrove habitat which has been declining at an alarming rate throughout Thailand's coastal zone. Only one-6th of about 160,000 hectares of mangrove forests are included in coastal parks. Similar to coral reefs, mangrove forest offer critical habitat to an abundance and variety of marine life, which in turn support fisheries and other traditional activities. The mangrove forest in Ao Phang-Nga, Tarutao, and newly established parks such as Mu Koh Chumphon and Kraburi, have better habitat conditions than the rest. Mangrove forest is also becoming popular with ecotourism for both domestic and international tourists.
Seagrass habitat, another significant coastal habitat for marine life, provides great benefits for people, especially local communities along the coastline. The largest seagrass beds are found in coastal protected areas, particularly along the Andaman Sea coast. Dugong and many other marine species use these areas for feeding.
Most coastal and marine parks in Thailand are either permanent or seasonal habitats for several important marine flora and fauna. The most common species of flora found in park are algae and phytoplankton. Many species of fish mollusks, sponges, worms, crustaceans and echinoderms can be found abundantly in most parks. Some notable species such as dugongs, dolphins and whale sharks appear frequently in some of the parks where their habitats is less disturbed. At least 4 species of sea turtle come to the parks beaches for their annual egg laying. These are important drawcards for divers, and generate large amounts of income for the economy.
Because the coastal area of Thailand is influenced by high intensity monsoon rainfall, most coastal areas and many islands established as marine national parks are carpeted in lush evergreen forest. The forests contain both high diversity and endemic species of flora and fauna.
Many of the country's most spectacular coastal scenery and beaches, such as Ang Thong and Mu Koh Phi Phi, occur within the boundaries of the coastal and marine national park system. As such, marine national parks serve as prime destinations for millions of domestic and international tourism visitors annually.
Fishing within the marine parks is an important issue and the problem is being addressed. The use of illegal fishing equipment and dynamite fishing has been significantly reduced during the last 5 years. Various local NGOs and people have played a significant role in increasing awareness as well as working hand in hand with park staff for habitat protection.
Another effective factor for decreasing illegal fishing has been the increasing of tourism activities in park areas. This has been experienced in Mu Koh Similan and Mu Koh Surin, where the Thailand dive operators act as a watchdog on these illegal activities, Mu Koh Chang and Mu Koh Samet.
Thai society realizes that the most valuable natural resources remain only in its protected areas. Coastal communities have learnt that the loss of coastal habitat, such as mangrove and seagrasses, leads to the loss of their income and livelihoods. Local people play an important role in coastal protection and maintenance. Various local NGOs working with local fishery organisations have played a significant role in increasing awareness among local people about their negative environmental impact.
Most parks, especially the coastal parks encompassed within communities, are required to implement the environmental conservation project as part of their routine work. The target group is Thai school children and local people nearby to the parks. Moreover, Marine National Park Education Centres are also set up specifically for implementing nature education development programmes. Each year at least 300 students and local people will be trained by parks and MNPCs. So far, park areas have played an important role in nature education for school children and students at different levels. Most habitats in parks become an outdoor laboratory for students and teachers. Several areas are frequently used by schools and colleges.
The high diversity ecosystem and fertile habitats within park areas provide excellent study areas for researchers. Furthermore, the mechanism of park management also encourages researchers to work in the park areas. The protection of parks will ensure that those study areas remain undisturbed.
Both the total area and number of marine national parks has expanded markedly during the past decade, with the trend set to continue expansion.
At present, the MNPD faces a number of management challenges.
Fishery activities are considered a central problem in many of the marine national parks, especially for the coastal parks. The conflict between parks and people on marine resource utilisation is increasing. Fishing within the park boundaries is prohibited. It is noted that when it comes to enforcement, this aspect is treated in a flexible way, with some marine national parks even allowing fishing. However, local fishermen in general feel that marine parks put unnecessary constraints on local fishing activities.
The use of illegal and inappropriate fishing gear has negatively impacted the marine national parks environment. Thailand's coast is especially rich in seagrass species with as many as 12 species found. The use of inappropriate fishing gear, including finely woven fishing nets, is very damaging to the seagrass. In this way the habitat for numerous marine animals is destroyed. Moreover, destructive fishing practices can be very damaging to the coral reefs. It is especially the use of explosives and use of fine nets which have negatively impacted upon the coral reefs.
Trawling has also had a very negative impact on marine resources both in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. In particular, the use of push nets and explosives along the shallow coast of Thailand has resulted in the severe decline in fish resources.
The number of tourists coming to Thailand is rapidly growing and this increases the pressure on the marine national parks. 8 of the existing parks have attendances exceeding 100,000 visitors per year. During visitation in parks, tourists will rely on various services and infrastructure provided at the parks, including overnight accommodation, guided boat tours, and other nature interpretation services. Tourism demand for coastal and marine parks is quite high for both the natural resources being used and the tourism infrastructure of the park. Both physical and environmental carrying capacity is being exceeded at several locations, thereby leading to congestion, the deterioration of the nature-oriented recreational experience and resource degradation.
At present, the park management is in a weak position to control the entry of tourists to the marine parks, especially the island parks such as Mu Koh Samet, Mu Koh Chang, and Mu Koh Phi Phi. Consequently, a large number of tourists do not pay entry fees and are unregistered.
The tourism problem also relates to the control of tourist activities within the park. The marine national parks base a zoning system mainly on the terrestrial park model and marine areas of park are not properly zoned. The pressure from tourists is therefore localised to certain sites in the parks, especially coral reefs. This has also resulted in the MNPD having to close reefs that were frequently visited by Thai divers in Mu Koh Similan, such as East of Eden.
The quality of recreational and educational experiences at the marine national parks is not reaching its potential. Several parks are destination for visitors from around the world such as Mu Koh Surin, Mu Koh Similan, Khao Leam Ya, Mu Koh Samet and Mu Koh Chang. But not many park officials are trained in coastal and marine environmental education. The expansion of coastal and offshore island resorts, the extension of cruise ship services to new locations, improved transportation to former remote locations are all expected to have considerable influence on coastal and marine parks and impact on the environment.
Low quality tourist vessels also create an environmental impact on natural habitat, especially coral reefs. Almost all Thai tourist vessels do not have proper storage system for waste water, and sewage is therefore flushed directly into the sea. Oil is commonly released from the tourist boat engines, particularly the boats that are converted from fishing boats. This is polluting the marine environment and thereby threatening the reef.
Marine parks also face problems as a result of land encroachment. The parks have in particular faced problems because people involved in shrimp farming have encroached into the marine protected areas and destroyed mangrove forests and occupied the land. Shrimp farming constitutes a serious problem, threatening the Ao Phang-Nga National Park. (However, in this park the current problem mostly relates to pollution from shrimp farms located in areas neighbouring the park). Several parks, including Hat Nopparat Thara - Mu Koh Phi Phi, Khao Leam Ya and Mu Koh Samet, face serious difficulties because of encroachment and land disputes. The conflicts are ever more complicated due to the high benefits gained from the tourism business in the parks.
The Thai National Park Act is outdated and the law was not developed specifically for marine parks. A key issue is the unresolved problem concerning the open seas. There are still uncertainties about how sea water can be designated as a part of a park. Attempts have been made to interpret 'land' to include the sea bordering islands and seashore. These unresolved legal issues put severe constraints on the national parks' ability to regulate economical and recreational activities in sea areas. The parks have, for example, been unable to properly zone the aquatic areas of the parks. Moreover, neither the National Park Act nor other relevant acts under RFD, including the National Forest Reserve Act or Wildlife Reserves Act, give the parks any legal authority to create buffer zones surrounding the protected areas. The parks are therefore unable to regulate environmentally unfriendly activities taking place in areas neighbouring the parks, including shrimp farms and resort construction.
Besides the legal constraints, there are several other factors that significantly constrain the MNPD to effectively operate and manage its marine national parks. Some of these factors relate directly to capacity constraints within RFD and the MNPD. There are certain financial limitations on park management in Thailand which severely constrain the parks in developing pragmatic annual financial proposals.
The parks face capacity problems with regards to staff skills. The park superintendents and chief assistants all have forestry backgrounds, and they receive only sporadic training related to marine park management. There is a lack of technical and professional skills in areas such as environmental education and interpretation, social science and marine science. Moreover, most park guards are low paid temporary employees. They have no job security and incentives. The performance of the temporary staff is therefore relatively poor.
There are also important challenges concerning data collection and general management of data relating to the natural environments of the parks. Currently the parks lack baseline data and have not developed a uniform system for habitat and biodiversity monitoring.