(Information Source: Bangkok Post, by Steve Trent, on Wed May 01, 2019 04:00 am)
A worker is seen aboard an unregistered fishing trawler during an inspection by officials in Samut Sakhon in June last year. PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL
Thailand's seafood industry has been haunted by illegal fishing and human rights abuse. Following the March 24 general election, the new government must build on the reforms that have already been gained during the past four years.
Thailand's fishing fleet has been the scene of slavery, brutal physical abuse, human trafficking, and even murder of vulnerable migrant workers. Failure to act against these criminal operators led to global notoriety for Thailand's seafood sector, as one of the most abusive and destructive economic sectors in the world. This has been coupled with illegal and uncontrolled overfishing which threatened to strip Thailand's waters of its fish stocks and precious marine biodiversity.
At the Environmental Justice Foundation, we have uncovered horrific stories. During one of our investigations we met a man who had escaped from trafficking: "Whenever I came back to port they told me I owed them 20,000 or 30,000 baht [US$630-950]," he said. "I couldn't ask why, they would beat me -- any one of them would've killed me, so I didn't ask. I've seen beatings and killings before, so I didn't dare ask."
These severe abuses in the Thai fishing fleet were closely intertwined with a lack of regulation, ineffective punishments, and uncontrolled growth of the fishing industry. From just 99 powered trawlers in 1961, the numbers rose to nearly 600 times that, to an estimated 57,000 by 2011.
Even if fishing vessels were caught for illegal fishing, punitive sanctions were so low as to offer little or no deterrent against committing future crimes. Trawler operators could simply pay the local law enforcement's small fines to release their vessel, allowing them to immediately return to the same illegal activities.
As well as human rights abuse, this led to a severe depletion of fish stocks in both the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. Catch per unit effort -- a measure of how healthy fish stocks are -- fell by 92% in the Gulf of Thailand between 1961 and 2015. In the Andaman Sea the picture was much the same, where it fell by 75% between 1966 and 2015.
In 2014, Thailand got a wake-up call. The US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report gave the country the worst possible ranking for its human rights record. Following swiftly on the heels of that, in 2015 the European Commission issued a "yellow card" -- a formal warning that could lead to import bans to the EU.
The signs were clear. Not only were Thailand's marine ecosystems taking severe strain, but international trade links were under threat as the extreme levels of illegal fishing and human rights abuse came to light.
The Environmental Justice Foundation began working with the Thai government to tackle these issues in 2015, and we can attest to the significant progress that has been made.
The Thai Fisheries Act of 2015 introduced robust financial sanctions for illegal fishing and set out sorely needed restrictions on destructive gear types. The enforcement of an inshore exclusion zone also helped protect the rights of small-scale fishers.
Mandatory vessel monitoring systems meant the Department of Fisheries could precisely track fishing locations, minimising the risks of illegal fishing and unauthorised transfer of catch and crew between boats.
On shore, a network of 30 "Port in Port out" inspection centres were established across the country. Any vessel wanting to either leave or return to port must request authorisation and, depending on their previous compliance level, will receive an inspection by a multidisciplinary team.
In 2016, the country ratified the UN's Port State Measures Agreement, improving inspection standards for foreign-flagged vessels entering Thailand. In 2019, Thailand became the first country in Asia to ratify the International Labour Organisation's Work in Fishing Convention C188, which sets basic decent standards for work in the fishing industry.
With these and other reforms, the country is protecting its fish stocks and showing the international community it is capable of change.
Although data is scarce, and more studies are needed, small-scale fishers have told us that they are seeing a change at sea. Fish are more numerous, they say, are increasing in size, and more varied species are caught than in previous years.
"I feel that after the regulations came into place marine species stocks are looking healthy again. There are shrimps, shellfish, crabs and fish. The marine species stocks have improved a lot. This makes me happy. I am also happy that this will get passed on to our children in the future," said a small-scale fisher in the southern Andaman Sea.
Moreover, key business networks -- including the Thai Chamber of Commerce and Thai Fishery Producers Coalition -- have recognised the reforms as a turning point for Thailand's fisheries sector that helped secure renewed trust from many import countries.
Businesses who experienced direct impacts when Thailand's image shifted from leading seafood producer to destination for slavery and human trafficking have stressed the importance of continued commitment to tacking illegal fishing.
Times are changing for Thailand's fisheries. Three months ago, the EU yellow card warning was lifted, by this month a newly elected government will be in place. All eyes will be on the country to see if this means that progress will continue to grow, or whether the work and promises of the past will be swept away.
I would urge whoever takes the helm next not to disregard the hard-won progress that Thai fisheries have made. In addition, any new government must continue to address the obstacles that continue to prevent the Thai fishing industry from becoming a truly ethical and sustainable sector.
Freedom of association for all workers, especially migrants, is crucial to allow fishers to form unions and solve their own labour disputes. Ratifying the International Labour Organisation's Convention 87 would provide a robust framework for this.
The electronic payment system for fishers, which is currently required by law, must be preserved. Any attempt to repeal this would lead back to cash-based systems that are untraceable and increase the risk of wages being withheld or reduced.
Thailand should use its Asean chairmanship in 2019 to further its commitment to tackling illegal fishing beyond Thai waters. Measures such as an Asean-wide taskforce on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing would allow other Southeast Asian nations to help eradicate illegal fishing.
The reforms of the past four years, and coming measures, are not only crucial to the preservation of fish stocks and marine wildlife in Thailand's seas; they are also vital to secure Thailand's future trade prospects in an international marketplace focused on verifying the origin, traceability and sustainability of products.
The seafood industry is vitally important to Thailand's economy. If the new government wishes to protect this economic powerhouse, it must protect these reforms while pushing for more and ensure truly sustainable, legal and ethical fisheries.
Steve Trent is a Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.