- Thailand’s new government is promising to “unlock” fisheries by reducing regulation and transparency around vessels’ activities.
- A letter signed by 90 NGOs questions the National Fishing Association’s proposals for fisheries reform, including returning to day-rate salaries, permitting child labor and weakening punitive measures designed to deter illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
The government of Thailand is about to reverse eight years of progress.
Following the elections in Thailand this year, the new government is promising to “unlock” fisheries by reducing regulation and transparency around vessels’ activities. This includes rolling back the hard-won regulations in fisheries which were put in place to defend human rights and the ocean, following decades of egregious abuses and environmental degradation.
Last month, along with 90 other civil society organizations (CSOs) including Oceana, Greenpeace and Conservation International, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) signed a statement which was sent to Prime Minister Mr. Srettha Thavisin, requesting that he intervene and stop the bonfire of regulations before it is too late.
In 2014 and 2015, the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission separately took individual actions against Thai vessel operators. As a consequence, Thailand fell from third in the world for seafood exports in 2012 to 13th in 2021. Prior to this, sources from 2009 to 2014 reveal the horrific working conditions the majority of fishers had to survive. Almost all fishers reported having no contract and 80% reported never feeling free. Almost 70% of fishers surveyed allegedly experienced physical or sexual abuse.
Most shockingly of all, in 2009, the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking revealed that almost 60% of crew members had witnessed executions at sea. There is a very real cost to rolling back on accountability and transparency.
EJF has spent years investigating illegal fishing and human rights abuses perpetrated by Thai fishing vessels. A 2018 investigation by EJF included undercover work in Thailand which revealed how easily recently arrived migrants, commonly unable to speak Thai and unaware of labor laws and rights, can be exploited. Looser regulations enable environmental destruction as much as workers rights abuses. Before efforts to regulate, the number of commercial vessels grew in Thailand and an absence of monitoring and surveillance meant that they would illegally fish within inshore exclusion zones and marine protected areas – leaving Thai artisanal fishers with ever-shrinking catches.
Efforts to improve fisheries management, enhance regulation and increase awareness around the industry, by both CSOs and the Thai government, have led to the tentative recovery of fish populations and improved working conditions for many. These successes have transformed Thailand to a leader in the region, restoring fisheries and its reputation.
The letter issued by CSOs calls for Mr. Thavisin to take immediate steps to ensure that the existing illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing directives and transparency mechanisms are strengthened rather than diminished.
The letter draws attention to the National Fishing Association of Thailand’s problematic proposals for reform including returning to day-rate fisher salaries, permitting child labor and weakening punitive measures designed to deter IUU fishing, and calls for the Prime Minister to not adopt these recommendations. Such proposals would raise serious concerns for major seafood buyers and weaken Thailand’s international reputation on the global seafood market.
Significantly, the deregulation of fisheries will impact artisanal Thai fishers. An EJF policy briefing from 2022 reveals how an absence of monitoring and control allowed commercial fishers to proliferate close to shore. Thai commercial fishing vessel numbers rose from just 99 powered trawlers in 1999 to 57,000 in 2011. If these commercial vessels came closer than 3km to the coast, the fine would be so minuscule that it wouldn’t act as a deterrent. One artisanal fisher told EJF, “We used energy drink bottles to warn commercial vessels to back off. We attacked and kept on throwing, and throwing. Glass would shatter everywhere. We believed that’s the best we could do to protect our village.”
However, efforts to decommission commercial vessels, as well as the revocation of over 8,000 licenses because of alleged links to illegal fishing, have led to a significant decrease in the number of commercial vessels. Since May 2016, the commercial fleet has shrunk by almost 25%.
Thailand can’t afford for its fisheries to return to the state they were in before the reforms — or worse. Following decades of unscrupulous operators fishing unsustainably and abusing their workers, years of reforms have meant that marine ecosystems in Thailand have started to recover and human rights abuses are decreasing.
However, it will take very little to reverse this good work and the deregulations now being proposed will ensure that Thailand’s fish populations are decimated, and the safety of its fisheries workforce jeopardized once again. The proposals would also threaten invaluable international seafood trade revenues for the country, threatening both the fishing and seafood processing sectors. There is only one way for this crucial industry to survive, and that is through greater regulation and greater transparency.
Steve Trent is executive director and co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Banner image: Fishing vessels in Thailand. Image via pxhere.com (Public domain).
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