- To rebuild its dwindling fish stocks, Thailand has implemented a series of reforms to its fishing sector since 2015, reining in illegal fishing while curtailing catches and the size of its commercial fishing fleet.
- In July, the Thai government announced a ban on new registrations for bottom trawlers, a particularly destructive and indiscriminate kind of fishing vessel, coupled with a $30 million buyout program for them and other gear types.
- Small-scale fishers say the reforms don’t go far enough to protect fish stocks, while commercial fishers say the new rules are hobbling their industry and should be scrapped.
Chiang Mai, THAILAND — Piya Thedyam was born into a fisherman’s family and first went to sea with his father at age 12. “I didn’t like it and almost ran away,” he said. “But at some point, he cultivated a love for the sea in me.”
For a time, Thedyam worked on large commercial fishing vessels where he witnessed the sea being exploited with powerful, destructive equipment. At 19, he’d had enough of that and he began sailing his own tiny fishing boat from his home in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, exploring the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea while fishing mainly local mackerel. Eventually he acquired a fleet of four vessels, some not so tiny.
Thedyam said that over the past two decades he has come to know the sea up close and well. In 2004, the sea sent him a signal. “We found mackerel that used to be abundant in the area were missing. I could feel the crisis coming,” he said.
Thailand, with its 300,000-square-kilometer (116,000-square-mile) exclusive economic zone, was the regional hub for Indo-Pacific or short mackerel (Rastrelliger brachysoma). The fish were so abundant that they became a household staple. Mackerel chili, Nam prik pla tu, is commonly known as the “food for all,” a good meal at a humble cost. As one popular Thai song has it, “Who cares for steak or stew while we have plenty of mackerel chili?”
But Thailand’s Indo-Pacific mackerel catches have plummeted, from over 160,000 metric tons in 1999 down to just 27,000 metric tons in 2020. And the dwindling mackerel and other fish are just one among a suite of problems Thailand’s fisheries have been grappling with, including overfishing, illegal fishing, human trafficking and forced labor. In response, the country has implemented a series of reforms since 2015. These aim, in part, to reduce overall catches by reining in the number of vessels plying the country’s waters.
One of the main targets is bottom trawlers, fishing vessels that drag heavy nets across the seafloor, churning up seabed habitat and scooping up species indiscriminately. The mackerel declines, for instance, are widely blamed on bottom trawlers catching juveniles before they can breed and destroying mackerel nurseries. Researchers have also found that bottom trawling releases a substantial amount of carbon stored in the seabed, with implications for climate change and far-reaching effects on marine ecosystems. In July, the Thai government announced a ban on new registrations for trawlers coupled with a $30 million buyout program for them and other fishing vessels. But while the moves to restrict bottom trawling are drawing support and calls for further action from small-scale fishers like Thedyam, they’re eliciting howls of pain and consternation from fishers a little further up the seafood chain.
Yellow card sparks series of reforms
Thailand has long been one of the world’s largest exporters of marine seafood. The value was more than $6 billion in 2014, the year before the European Commission issued the country a “yellow card” warning, threatening to ban imports to Europe unless it addressed its unsustainable fishing practices.
The prospect of losing nearly $800 million in seafood sales to Europe prompted the Thai military junta in power at that time to launch a major overhaul of the industry and a crackdown on illegal fishing. The measures it implemented were wide-ranging, including tightened surveillance via a new vessel monitoring system, enhanced enforcement of regulations and stiffer penalties for noncompliance, even sinking confiscated boats to create artificial coral reefs.
Since 2015, starting even before the yellow card, the government has seized 77 illegal fishing vessels, some as large as 400 gross tonnage. Within 6 months of the yellow card, the government revoked the license and registration of 8,024 commercial and artisanal vessels it accused of violating fisheries laws. It started with the highest priority group: 500 bottom trawlers.
The government also announced the arrest of close to 200 unregistered fishing vessels deemed stateless and accused of violating international fishing regulations in Thai waters. Pictures of the vessels and the crew were published in the state gazette.
The European Commission lifted the yellow card four years later, in 2019, the same year elections returned Thailand to being a constitutional monarchy. However, the government remains heavily controlled by the previous regime’s military leaders and it continued its pledge to curtail overfishing and the country’s oversize fishing fleet.
Between 1992 and 2005, Thailand caught more than 2.5 million metric tons of seafood annually in marine fisheries, a stretch of 14 consecutive years, according to government statistics. It was a swift jump; the country had only begun consistently catching upwards of 2 million metric tons annually a few years earlier, in 1986. Prior to the 2015 yellow card warning, Thailand’s fishing catch reached 32.8% over the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), a measure of how much fish can be caught without depleting stocks, according to a government report. In other words, overfishing was a big problem.
“Fishing in the old days was based on maximum economic yield,” Chalermchai Suwannarak, director general of the country’s Department of Fisheries, told Mongabay. “Thai fleets have traveled as far as Australia and Africa to get as much as possible on each trip. With higher demand both domestically and internationally, the numbers have grown fast beyond control. Laws and regulations could not keep up.”
Suwannarak said the government’s plan is to downsize both the catches and the fishing fleet until the catch volume is balanced with the marine resources, using an MSY of 1.5 million metric tons as a guide. It represents a major shift, replacing maximum economic yield with maximum sustainable yield.
The country appears to have achieved that goal: catches have been below 1.5 million metric tons since 2014, according to the latest official Thai fisheries statistics, published in May. And while the government is continuing to talk about downsizing the commercial fishing fleet, focusing on trawlers, it appears the 8,024 vessels in question have been out of commission since 2015.
For years, Thailand had no formal count of how many vessels were fishing its waters. In 2015, the government’s first big survey showed the country had more than 13,000 registered commercial fishing vessels — those with gross tonnage of 10 or greater. By 2021, the official number was down to 10,000. By contrast, artisanal vessels ballooned from 27,000 to more than 50,000 over the same period.
On July 1, at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Suwannarak presented Thailand’s commitment to the international community, announcing a permanent ban on new registrations for bottom trawlers and a $30 million buyout scheme for 1,838 of the docked vessels deemed only to have violated registration requirements, including 541 bottom trawlers. The announcement won kudos from international conservation NGOs.
However, the promise of a bottom-trawler ban is not new. The country stopped issuing new registrations for bottom trawlers on a temporary basis in 2016, in response to the yellow card ordeal. And it initiated the $30 million buyout scheme back in 2019, targeting the same vessels. Since then it has compensated owners of only about half of the trawlers that are at the top of the list, with prolonged inspections for each vessel that can take four years or longer.
That $30 million still has yet to be secured, and it may not be enough, Suwannarak told Mongabay. “We need to ask for approval from the cabinet. I hope it won’t take long,” he said. “We still can’t estimate the exact amount of the budget needed. It takes time to inspect each ship for size and condition. Considering there are 2,000 ships on the waiting list, it must be a huge amount of money and time. ”
Still, Suwannarak said the plan is proceeding well. “We saw the commercial fleet as 20% oversize. The downsizing to around 8,000 is on the right track,” he said.
Yet he said much more needs to be done to ensure proper use of marine resources. “The problem is not only with highly destructive tools like trawlers,” he said. “There is fishing in sensitive areas, fishing during the spawning season, fishing in areas with juvenile marine animals. These need to be rigorously controlled.”
A new law, the 2019 National Maritime Interests Protection Act, aims to improve enforcement. It established the Maritime Enforcement Command Center led by the Navy commander, which reports directly to the prime minister and has one thousand staff.
A blow for commercial fishers
Commercial fishers have been fighting the reforms, mainly with petitions and closed-door discussions. In December 2019, they took to the street. Hundreds of people camped out for two days in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees fishing policy, demanding the government relax all restrictions, compensate fishers and allow their moored vessels to fish again.
“We have been forced to moor and stop fishing,” Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, which represents commercial fishing interests, told Mongabay. “Our registration has been ripped off overnight without warning or trial. We have been treated like criminals.”
Sukcharoenkana said Thailand’s commercial fleet is shriveling as a result of the new measures and “discrimination” against the commercial sector. At the same time, the government allowed the number of small-scale fishing boats to double. Sukcharoenkana said that this fleet was also guilty of fishing undersized fish.
“No compensation nor assistance for over 40,000 of our seamen. Many plunged into despair and some have committed suicide. Do you think you can push the fishing industry ahead with those 50,000 small fishing rods?” said Sukcharoenkana, a boat owner himself. He was shouting, a habit he later explained came from a career spent giving orders to his crew over the din of boat engines.
As for the government’s buyout plan, Sukcharoenkana was pessimistic. “I don’t believe they will pay. They have kept bragging about big deals for four years but have done too little. I don’t think they will do any better after taking a world tour pretending everything is all right,” he said.
Sukcharoenkana lives in Samut Songkhram, Thailand’s fishing capital. It has the biggest fleets, the biggest pier and the biggest fish market. Like Thedyam, Sukcharoenkana has made a living from the sea since his youth. He said it was sad to see his world crumbling so quickly: thousands lost their careers and property; his country has lost a lucrative source of income. The downsized fleet will bring Thailand’s heyday of seafood exports to an end. “We lost $5 billion over seven years just to make the EU happy,” he said.
The fisherman and the bulldozer
A 12-hour drive south of where Sukcharoenkana lives, Beeyoh Ampanniyom has been selling fish her family catches at the market in Ban Na Thap, a small town in Songkhla province, for the past 20 years. There’s been no pla tu, or local mackerel, for sale here lately, she told Mongabay.
“Mackerel sold in the market comes from as far as India and Oman,” she said. “Only a few of them have been found in our sea in recent years. The price is not cheap anymore either.”
According to the Thai Sea Watch Association, a civil society organization based in Songkhla, Thailand now imports 200,000 metric tons of mackerel each year. With higher demand, imports could soon reach 300,000 metric tons, according to the association. The price has tripled in the last decade.
“With that, it is not a fish for all anymore,” the association’s president, Wichoksak Ronnarongpairee, said.
On May 27, just before the monsoon arrived, Thedyam, Ronnarongpairee and an energetic group of fishermen set out to sea in their small boats. They had their fishing rods and nets, as usual. But nothing was usual about that trip.
From Pattani province just south of Songkhla, in the country’s deep south, they took a 13-day sea trip to Bangkok, the capital. They docked their boats in front of Parliament and entered the building.
“Bring back our mackerel!” they shouted, and poured a handful of tiny, smelly dried mackerel onto the lobby floor. They met with the minister who oversees fishery policy, demanding “serious control” of the capture of juvenile sea animals by big gear like bottom trawlers. It was a call they’d been making for the past 7 years, with little effect on their scant catches.
“While our over 50,000 traditional fishing boats have been waiting patiently for mature fish, large fisheries took them all with more powerful equipment: the bottom trawlers,” Ronnarongpairee told Mongabay. “[They] wiped everything out like a bulldozer.”
Thedyam said what bothers him most is that the small fish, once netted, are regarded as “trash” seafood and end up being sold as cheap animal food.
“We have thrown away our future food down to animal feeders, letting us starve with the scarcity of affordable food,” Thedyam said. “The benefit surely goes only to the big fishery products and animal feed industries.”
The group vowed to return if Parliament did not act within 30 days.
Will it work?
Chavalit Vidthayanon, an ichthyologist and board member with the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, an environmental institute in Bangkok, recalled an early lesson about bottom trawlers. Back when he was a third-year student in fisheries science, a professor showed his class sonar scans of Thailand’s seabed.
“For the Gulf of Thailand, the seabed was flat and clear as a newly mowed football field,” he said. “We scanned the seas nearby, like those of Cambodia. It is not as flat as ours.” The professor attributed the difference to bottom trawling sweeping away everything in its path.
Yet Vidthayanon said his own research indicated that bottom trawling isn’t the only widespread fishing practice yielding devastating catches of Thailand’s juvenile fish. Night fishing with high-power light lures did the same, he said. In 2021, 1,929 of these vessels were roaming Thai waters. He’s been arguing for decades the practice should stop, with little effect — a fact he attributed to a lack of empirical research that in turn stemmed from the government’s failure to appreciate or fund marine conservation science.
Instead, he said, “We all focus only on the bottom trawler.”
Nevertheless, Vidthayanon said the national goal of reducing and keeping catches to 1.5 million metric tons per year was worthy and achievable with the downsizing scheme.
“Theoretically, I would say it works,” he said. But he expressed concern about the government’s ability to enforce the rules in the long run, and also to address lesser-known destructive practices, like light-lure fishing. Vidthayanon also called for regulations barring the purchase and processing of undersized seafood, and for truthful labeling of seafood products as necessary steps to restoring Thai fish stocks.
Even so, Vidthayanon said the government’s years-long reforms are starting to pay off. He said he’s witnessed the revival of marine life in certain places after years of strict practice, such as dolphins reappearing close to shore and mackerel starting to return to the sea near Songkhla. “That’s a very good sign,” he said.
More than two months have passed since Thedyam and his fellow protesters took their sea trip to Bangkok. Their 30-day deadline for lawmakers to regulate the capture of juvenile fish has passed with no action.
They said the time had come for another trip to Bangkok. This time they vowed to meet with the prime minister himself.
Banner image: Fishing vessels in Thailand. Image via pxhere.com (Public domain).
Fisheries Statistics of Thailand 2003. (2005). Retrieved from Fishery Information and Technology Center, Thailand Department of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives website: https://www.fisheries.go.th/strategy-stat/themeWeb/books/2546/1/yearbook2546.pdf
Fisheries Statistics of Thailand 2020. (2022). Retrieved from Fisheries Development Policy and Planning Division, Thailand Department of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives website: https://www4.fisheries.go.th/local/file_document/20220602105941_1_file.pdf
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