Thai fishermen whose boats have been grounded for months by government rules targeting illegal fishing are growing desperate, with some resorting to suicide, people in Thailand’s seafood industry told BenarNews.
“I am so sad at everything that is happening. Early this month, one of my neighbors fed poison to all three of his children, killing them all before taking his own life in the same way,” said Somnuk Noosen, who operates a fishing vessel out of southern Nakhon Sri Thammarat province.
“His wife was the only one to survive. Fortunately, she happened to be out at the market at the time, or she would have met the same fate. I believe there is a lot more death to come,” he added.
Somnuk spoke to BenarNews while attending the Oct. 1 funeral for a friend, another fisherman who allegedly committed suicide out of economic desperation that grew out of new restrictions on fishing boats and nets.
Thousands of Thai fishermen have been affected by the regulations, which went into effect July 1.
Surapong Wongkrut, the skipper of a trawler based in Pattani province, hanged himself from a mango tree in front of his home on Sept. 24. His funeral took place a week later at the Hua Talaat Temple in Muang Pattani district.
“I never expected my husband to decide to solve his problems by taking his own life. He was the type of man who didn’t normally discuss work problems with his family,” Phrai Wongkrut, Surapong’s widow, told BenarNews.
Pattani is one of Thailand’s three provinces that form a Malay-speaking region known as the Deep South, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has raged for years and where fishing is a mainstay of the struggling local economy.
“We suffered such hardship because he couldn’t go out to sea. It was unbearable. Everybody was completely stressed, but none of us ever imagined he would choose this way out,” Phrai said.
The Thai government began to implement new regulations in July, following a “yellow card” warning given to Thailand by the European Union. The EU, a major market for products from Thai fisheries, gave Bangkok six months to implement measures targeting illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing practices (IUU), or face a potential European ban on seafood imports from Thailand.
The yellow card is set to expire on Oct. 21. While it remains in effect, more than 4,000 fishing boats deemed to be illegal have been ordered to stay at port until their owners register them. Under the new rules, which are aimed at meeting EU fishing standards, other vessels have been ordered to switch out their equipment for more costly but less environmentally destructive nets.
The regulations, nonetheless, have disrupted the way of life and source of livelihood for fishermen across Thailand, people in the multi-billion dollar seafood industry say. Those based in the Deep South have staged protests demanding that the government lift or ease the restrictions.
On Tuesday, about 150 trawlers staged a protest by forming a chain blocking the Pattani River.
“Even after the government introduced its new regulations for the fishing industry, they have gradually announced a number of strict new measures that have led many out-of-work fishermen to take their own lives,” Phubet Chanthanimi, president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT), told BenarNews.
“I would like the government to show some sympathy for this segment of society. We can rest assured that the problems we are seeing now are only going to escalate and get a lot worse if the cries for help from fishermen continue to go unheeded,” he added.
‘Left us to die’
Tanawat Laotong, owner of the Choke Patcharee 2, the trawler skippered by the late Surapong, was among those who turned out for his cremation ceremony.
“Mr. Surapong captained the Choke Patcharee 2 for more than ten years. He got really stressed after his vessel was no longer to go out to sea, which meant he had no source of income for over four months …,” Tanawat told BenarNews. “As the stress continued to mount, he could find no other way out.”
The owner said he loaned some money to Surapong and other members of crews of boats that he owns to help them make ends meet. He was now trying to help out the captain of another boat whose wife has been hospitalized and needs surgery, Tanawat said.
“Last month, a friend in Rayong [province], who also captained an illegal fishing boat, also took his own life,” the boat owner added.
Four of the seven boats that he owns have been grounded.
“Before, all the members of our group operated legally under the law. Now the government has made us illegal and left us to die. There is going to a lot more suffering and death if the government does nothing to help them,” he said.
Selling off prized roosters
Like his colleagues in the industry, Somnuk Noosen, who travelled to Pattani to mourn his friend’s death, has also been reeling from the regulations.
“As soon as I heard the news about Big Brother Surapong’s death, I knew I had to be here. So I sold three of my fighting cocks to raise some money, then put the entire family on the next train to Pattani.”
As a result of his hardship, Somnuk said he has had to pull his son out of school.
“I am sad because I can no longer study like my friends,” the boy, Sanya Noosen, told BenarNews.
“I feel sorry for my dad because he doesn’t have any money. I really want to study so that I will be better able to take care of him. He is old already. But, for now, I have to stop studying,” he said.
Responding to the anger and frustration expressed by provincial fishermen, Pattani Dep. Gov. Taekingsak Yoksiri said the government was aware of the problems facing so many idle fishermen and their families.
“There has been some progress on the fisheries issue. The latest development is that the state has established measures to help business operators and fishermen. In the first stage, we will help them change their fishing equipment. A provincial working committee is in the process of collecting information about all of those who have been affected,” the deputy governor said.
On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon announced that he would ask the Thai government to agree to a financial aid package to 4,800 affected fishing boats worth 228.5 million baht (U.S. $6.3 million). The money would go to helping boat operators and owners meet the government’s deadline for obtaining fishing permits and switching over to authorized gear, the Bangkok Post reported.
“In the meantime, we ask fishermen to be remain calm. The government already has some assistance measures in place and understands the hardships you face,” Taekingsak said.