Amid EU threats to blacklist Thai seafood if the industry fails to clean up its act by October, the Southeast Asian country and its neighbor Indonesia agreed on Thursday to form a joint task force to combat illegal fishing, which remains in the spotlight in the wake of an Associated Press investigation into slavery aboard Thai-run ships in Indonesian waters.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha – who took power in a military coup last year – made the announcement on the sidelines of the Asian-African Conference in Jakarta.
Establishing the cooperation is just one measure the Thai government has pledged to pursue this week in the wake of the ultimatum from the EU, which gave the world’s third-largest seafood exporter six months to crack down on illegal fishing or face an import ban.
Prayut said he would invoke extraordinary powers under a new security act to fast-track a regulation that would empower officials to inspect vessels and penalize illegal operations.
Industry players were doubtful the Thai government could turn the industry around in time to meet the EU’s deadline.
“There are 2,000 boats in Thailand that have incorrect licenses,” Wiriya Sirichaiekawat, vice-chairman of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, told Reuters. “It will be difficult for the government to get the boats registered within six months.”
He added, “There’s too much paperwork to register a boat and to obtain a fishing license. We are recommending that the government has a center in every province along the coast to minimize time wastage.”
The US could also impose sanctions. On Wednesday, a congressional subcommittee on human rights heard about slavery in the Thai seafood industry and urged the US president to “come down hard on those countries that violate human rights when it releases the report in June,” the AP reported.
Meanwhile, Indonesian police continued to investigate the death of a staffer in the country’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, described as a “key witness” in the case against the company outed for using slaves in the AP report, Pusaka Benjina Resources.
Yoseph Sairlela was found dead in a hotel in Jakarta on Saturday. Initial reports cited a wound and bruise on his face and suggested he was beaten to death, but the police have since said he died from a heart attack.