Thai authorities on Wednesday eased restrictions on certain types of fishing boats, allowing them to fish again until early August but requiring them to change their equipment afterwards in order to comply with European Union (EU) rules for seafood imports.
Failure to do so in meeting an EU deadline set for late October could lead to a ban by the European bloc on Thailand’s multi-billion dollar seafood industry, which could harm the economy and cause job losses in the sector.
Under the move, licensed and registered boats equipped with push nets – which had been grounded since July 1 – are being be permitted to fish till Aug. 7. The controversial practice of push-net fishing, where a boat sweeps the ocean floor with a triangular net that has a rigid frame, is seen by ocean conservationists as environmentally destructive.
Now, only licensed boats that carry such equipment will be permitted to fish on condition that they eventually switch out their nets with ones that have larger holes.
Wednesday’s decision followed a meeting between the Command Center for Combating Illegal Fishing (CCCIF) – a governmental ad hoc body set up to deal with the issue – and concerned officials and seafood industry representatives.
Chaired by Adm. Kraison Chansuwanit, the Royal Thai Navy’s commander in-chief, the meeting in Bangkok also resolved to consider a limit on the number of fishing boats that could operate in the area as well as zone fishing boats.
‘Whatever it takes’
In response to a warning issued by the EU on April 21, the Thai government on July 1 began requiring all fishing boats to be licensed and registered.
The EU handed Thailand a “yellow card” for “not taking sufficient measures in the international fight against illegal fishing.”
It gave Thailand six months to show improvement on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing practices (IUU).
Of Thailand’s 200 billion baht (U.S. $5.9 billion) industry, 32 billion baht (one billion dollars) worth of sea food products are exported to the European markets.
Under the Thai government’s new regulations for the fishing industry, each boat must be licensed and registered; be equipped with a vessel monitoring system; and carry safety equipment and copies of employment contracts, among other things.
Nearly a month later, according to a trade group representing the seafood industry, some 3,000 fishing vessels out of some 57,000 in the country’s 23 provinces, still have failed either to register or obtain licenses.
“There are a little more than 3,000 vessels nationwide trying to obtain the required registration,” National Fisheries Association of Thailand President Phubet Chanthanimi told BenarNews by telephone.
“What vessel owners want right now is that whatever it takes, they will just do that so that their vessels can operate in the sea again,” Phubet said.
Flawed management of fisheries
However, according to experts, the government’s efforts to confront illegal fishing are aimed at complying with IUU standards for commercial entrepreneurs, but they are not likely to help Thailand’s traditional fishermen.
“The government effort focuses on IUU compliance but it doesn’t include the issue of destructive fishing practiced by commercial vessels, especially those trawlers catching all sizes of fishes and others,” Supaporn Anuchiracheeva, an expert with the Earth Net Foundation, a Thai NGO, told BenarNews by phone.
Thailand’s fisheries have long suffered from destructive overfishing by fleets of commercial vessels whose hauls feed European markets, by using push-nets and trawlers that sweep all kinds and all sizes of living organisms from the seabed. Only one-third of those catches are edible, while the rest is used for animal feed.
“The government should have banned the illegal equipment and methods such as push net, trawler and light-casting fishing, which are destructive,” Supaporn added.
According to the Thai Frozen Foods Association, the harvest rate in Thai territorial waters dropped from 300 kilograms an hour in 1961 to only 25 kilos in 2011.
Supaporn said she opposed the concept of limiting the number of vessels by basing it on the calculated maximum sustainable yield, because that is only applicable to the Western way of commercial fishing.
“I don’t agree with that because no matter how big the number of traditional boats is, they don’t cause damages to the resources as much as the commercial fleets do. It’s all about being considerate,” she added.
Meanwhile, labor activists say that Thailand should enforce transparent work agreements between workers and fishing entrepreneurs in order to comply with international standards as well as solve manpower shortages in the industry.
Sompong Srakaew, executive director of Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation, another local NGO, said the wages for deckhands should be equal or even double that of Thailand’s daily minimum wage, and should also apply to workers of all nationalities.
“The work contract should clearly spell out the job description, how long each fishing session will last, where the vessels go, and when they will come ashore,” he said.
If the workers are well paid, between 300 baht (U.S. 8.63) and 600 baht (U.S. $17.27) a day and the job contract is clear, even Thai workers could be interested in the sector, which would also solve the labor shortage problem, Sompong said.
Thai vessels allegedly have used slave labor, and media outlets recently exposed the plight of migrant workers working in such conditions.
Nasueroh and Natalie contributed to this report.