Thousands of Thai fishing boats stayed docked Wednesday as operators scrambled to meet new regulations aimed at avoiding a European ban on seafood imports from Thailand.
A trade group representing Thailand’s multi-billion dollar seafood said it would obey a governmental order requiring all fishing boat operators to be licensed and registered. But it pleaded for the authorities to grant an extension on a compliance deadline that expired Wednesday.
“I agree with the new fisheries order because it will be beneficial to the fishermen and the country in the long run. But we want the government to extend the timeframe for registration,” National Fisheries Association of Thailand President Phubet Chanthanimi said during a meeting in southern Pattani province.
Fishermen in coastal Pattani, however, would not stage a blockade to protest against the government’s measures to regulate the nation’s 200 billion baht (U.S. $5.9 billion) seafood industry, he added.
“After the meeting we felt satisfied, but the association’s members may get together again on July 3 or July 4 in front of the provincial hall to show our stance,” Phubet told reporters.
More than 2,000 fishing boats in Pattani and neighboring Narathiwat remained in port as the deadline passed.
“About 80 percent of all the fishermen, they’re coming back to shore” in order to comply with the new regulations, Agence France-Presse quoted Thai Overseas Fisheries Association President Aphisit Techanitisawad as saying.
Thailand, the world’s third biggest seafood exporter, is imposing the new measures because it faces a potential ban on seafood exports to the European Union – the world’s single largest market for imported fish and fishery products, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
On April 21, the EU hit the Southeast Asian nation with a “yellow card” for “not taking sufficient measures in the international fight against illegal fishing,” according to the European Commission.
The European bloc gave Thailand six months to show improvement on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing practices (IUU).
Some 80,000 migrants were working in the Thai seafood industry, and a deadline for registering migrant workers expired on Tuesday, AFP reported, citing a labor ministry official.
The industry has also faced criticism from human rights groups for employing victims of human trafficking. In March, the Associated Press published a year-long investigation into the Southeast Asian seafood trade that exposed the alleged enslavement of foreign migrants on fishing boats.
PM: No extension
The industry needs more time to comply because some 4,000 illegal fishing boats are operating out of Thailand, Phubet said. According to the Marine Fisheries Research and Development Bureau, some 57,141 vessels are based in Thailand’s 23 seaside provinces.
In Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Wednesday rejected such calls for an extension, saying that delaying regulation of the seafood industry could harm the country’s trade with Europe.
“I’m keeping an eye on it. If we are pressured to postpone the mandate and we fail the [EU’s] assessment, shall we all be responsible for the loss of 200 billion baht worth of goods that can’t sell?” Prayuth said, according to local news reports.
“That would finally mean all fishing boats couldn’t fish anymore, so don’t protest to make it worse,” the prime minister added.
According to the Thai Department of Fisheries, Thailand’s seafood exports to the EU alone are worth 30 billion baht (U.S. $887.4 million) annually.
The government adopted a new law, the Fisheries Act, just a week after the EU issued Thailand the yellow card warning. Soon after, the government notified the industry that it had till July 1 to meet the new rules.
All fishing boat operators must now fulfill several requirements: each boat must be licensed and registered with the authorities; be equipped with a vessel monitoring system; and carry safety equipment and copies of employment contracts.
Entrepreneurs who fail to comply with the law could face a year in prison or a 100,000-baht (U.S. $2,950) fine, if arrested and convicted.
Seafood giant backs measures
Thailand’s biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products (TUF), said Wednesday that it was committed to complying with the government’s measures to raise industry practices to international standards.
“The government sector must address it seriously to police the fishing, to contain the already-damaged image,” Sasinan Allmand, TUF’s corporate communications chief, told BenarNews in a phone interview.
In its investigative report, AP named Thai Union Frozen Products as among companies that had sold seafood products harvested by slave laborers working aboard fishing boats in Indonesia.
“We are the leading exporter in sea foods, and we’d like to see the government seriously and sustainably handle the issue. We have a significant market share in world market and we must stand up with grace,” Sasinan added.
“If that would cause a rise in overhead costs, we all take the burden [so] as to comply with international standards. We should aim at the collective interest to make the industry sustainable,” she said.
Pimuk Rakkanam contributed to this report.