Troubled Waters for Thailand's seafood industry

Robert Horn's picture

GREATER regional co-operation will be needed to protect and preserve the wealth of Southeast Asia’s seas. Any way you look at it, Thailand’s seafood industry is facing some tough times . . .

BANGKOK — Seafood has been one of Thailand’s top 10 exports for decades. But, the Kingdom’s fishing industry has entered troubled waters.
Condemned globally for human trafficking, slave labour and other abuses, and threatened with sanctions by the European Union over illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, the future of Thailand’s nearly US$3 billion a year industry appears increasingly bleak.
That’s more bad news for a country from which exports contracted during the first quarter of this year.
Faced with boycotts from some large foreign importers and a huge stain on Thailand’s reputation, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been cracking down to try to clean up the sector.
Fisheries laws have been amended for the first time in decades, penalties have been raised, inspections are increasing and trawlers over 30 tonnes are now required to install satellite tracking systems so that authorities can monitor whether they are violating the maritime boundaries of other countries.
But fishing operators are baulking at the new rules. Unless authorities relax new regulations, they are warning that more than 3,000 medium-sized vessels will have to cease fishing after July 1 because they won’t have registered in time.
The National Fisheries Association of Thailand, an industry group, claims 600 seafood-processing factories will shut down, and that thousands will lose their jobs. All in all, enforcing the rules is will lead to losses of roughly US$500 million a month.
“We don’t want to stop fishing and we don’t want to break the law. But we can’t carry out our business with these severe restrictions,’’ said Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, Vice President of the Thailand National Fisheries Association.
The day may be coming, however, when Thailand’s fishing fleets will be put out of business because of self-inflicted wounds.  
Sama-ae Jemudo, Chairman of the Fisherfolks Association, told the Bangkok Post that the Government should ignore industry threats and let the seas return to health. He says Thai trawlers routinely violate rules and fish close to shore, sweeping the seabeds clean and destroying the livelihoods of small Thai fishermen.
He called on the Government to ban all trawlers and their destructive fishing gear from coastlines.
Catches from the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea have been steadily declining because of overfishing.
Thai trawlers regularly invade other countries’ coastal waters. Indonesia recently seized and sank several Thai vessels for that reason. Thailand did the same to several Vietnamese vessels violating its waters.
“In short, trawlers kill the oceans,” says Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist with the Bangkok Post.
“They also kill the livelihoods of millions of people along the coast who depend on traditional fishing. They have been doing this for more than four decades. And when the Thai seas run near empty, they head for international waters, use slave labour to maximise their profits and leave destruction in their path. It is time for them to stop.”
Simply put, the seas of Southeast Asia cannot sustain the ever-increasing demands of the fishing fleets of the region, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) rating the environmental damage as severe.
Although Thailand’s fleet is smaller than that of some neighbouring countries, its catch in total tonnage is much larger — with the exception of Indonesia.
Part of the reason is that Thai trawlers are equipped with gear designed for large catches, and much of that gear is now illegal under Thailand’s amended laws because it is environmentally destructive.
If the Prime Minister sticks to his guns, then the impact on Thailand’s fishing fleets and seafood industry will be a painful one. Mongkol says that more than 30,000 families who depend on the industry will be negatively affected.
If the Prime Minister backs down, Thailand faces sanctions, and the pain will only be delayed as fishing fleets continue to deplete the very resources they depend upon.
Ultimately, greater regional co-operation will be needed to protect and preserve the wealth of Southeast Asia’s seas. UNEP has recommended that Thailand and other countries forge joint venture fishing agreements with each other to better regulate their marine resources.
Any way you look at it, Thailand’s seafood industry is facing some tough times.
The sooner it deals with the harsh realities, the sooner it will have a fighting chance to bounce back – for the good of its own bottom line, and the good of the environment upon which it depends.