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Thai plan to relax fishing law stokes fear of return to illegal catches, worker abuse

A Thai fishing trawler unloads its catch before dawn in Phuket Port, Thailand. Photo: Luke Duggleby

Thai lawmakers are discussing fisheries reforms that observers say risk undoing eight years of hard-won progress on human rights and ocean protection.

 

For six years, Prasert Sriwaurai was trapped at sea aboard a Thai trawler. He and his crewmates rarely sighted land, let alone spent time ashore. Denied medical care after an on-deck facial injury, he lost sight in one eye, according to a report in UK-based news outlet The Telegraph. Exposed to violence, forced labour and pitiful working conditions up until his escape from the ship in 2014, Prasert was one of many victims of the modern slavery rife at the time in Thailand’s fishing industry and revealed through a series of investigations roughly one decade ago.

In response to the investigations, international seafood buyers such as the EU and US imposed strict sanctions on Thailand’s fisheries sector, spurring the government to enact a series of legal reforms in 2015 and 2016 to clamp down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and associated labour abuses.

But eight years after those reforms, Thai lawmakers are now discussing amendments to Thailand’s Fisheries Act in a bid to improve profits and reduce legal burdens on commercial fishers. Observers say the proposed changes risk a return to the lawlessness of the not-too-distant past, placing human rights, local livelihoods and fish stocks at risk.

“Marine resources are shared resources,” said Piya Thedyam, a leader from the Federation of Thai Fisherfolk Association. “The spirit of the Fisheries Act clearly states that this law is intended to take care, protect, remediate and help local fisherfolk. However, this written spirit is about to be cut off.”

Dominic Thomson, Southeast Asia regional director for London-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), said the amendments “would undo much of the progress which has been made over the past eight years when it comes to tackling illegal fishing and improving human rights, and working conditions at sea … The proposed articles seek to benefit a very small minority of vessel and fleet operators, at the expense of thousands of artisanal fishers and other stakeholders.”

A recent legal review led by the EJF in partnership with a coalition of Thailand-based and international organisations identified 17 particularly worrisome articles within the proposed amendments, including ones that weaken worker protections and vessel monitoring systems, relax penalties for violations, dilute language around destructive fishing gear, and allow the transfer of workers and seafood products between vessels at sea.

The legal review concluded that if implemented, the rollbacks would not only jeopardise the safety of fishery workers and increase the risk of IUU fishing, but could also endanger Thailand’s seafood export revenues, valued at $5.4 billion in 2021, and stimulate fishing practices harmful to the long-term sustainability of Thailand’s fish and marine ecosystems. These are only just beginning to show signs of recovery from past overexploitation, the legal review said, reporting that catch obtained per unit of fishing effort, a measure of fish abundance, has increased by 40 percent in the Andaman Sea and by 80 percent in the Gulf of Thailand since its lowest point in 2017.

International trade risks

The proposed fisheries reforms emerged following Thailand’s general election in May 2023, when the new administration, led by Prime Minister Srettha Thaivisin, vowed to rejuvenate the profitability of the country’s fishing industry as a matter of urgency.

A ministerial committee tasked with overseeing the reforms is currently reviewing eight separate versions of the draft legislation submitted by the Thai cabinet and seven political parties. According to the EJF, several of the drafts, including the cabinet’s version, include amendments heavily influenced by the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT), which represents the commercial fisheries sector and has long called on the government to lift the measures introduced in 2015-16 to address IUU fishing and worker abuses.

Speaking at a January 2024 panel discussion in Bangkok, Prodprasop Suraswadi, an adviser to the prime minister and chair of the ministerial committee, said the legislative changes were necessary because the current fisheries rules are overly restrictive and complex, curtailing the profitability of the nation’s commercial fishing fleets and seafood exports.

With the committee expected to deliver the final draft of the new act to parliament for deliberation in late June, the nearing deadline has sparked heated debate both in Thailand and abroad.

In a May 2024 open letter, for instance, the EJF and several EU fisheries industry groups called on the European Commission’s director-general for maritime affairs and fisheries, Charlina Vitcheva, to uphold international standards on IUU fishing during ongoing negotiations for an EU-Thailand free trade agreement.

In the letter, the groups pointed to the EU’s instrumental role in spurring Thailand’s efforts to address IUU fishing through the issuance of a yellow card on Thai seafood exports in 2015. A yellow card is a warning that could lead to import bans if the issues are not addressed. When Thai authorities introduced regulations in line with international best practice to curtail IUU and associated abuses, the card was lifted in 2019.

“In the face of this possible regressive and damaging step from the Thai authorities, the Commission must remain vigilant and ensure that the EU’s trade aspirations strengthen rather than undermine its anti-IUU fishing policies,” the letter said.

Other major importers of Thai seafood products include the US, the UK, Japan and South Korea, which either uphold or are developing tight import standards to reduce the risk of complicity with IUU fishing. Together, these markets account for roughly 60 percent of Thailand’s seafood exports, worth $3.3 billion in 2022, according to the EJF. 

A lack of profitability

Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, president of NFAT, said he’s not worried that the proposed reforms will undermine Thailand’s reputation on the global seafood market. Since the country’s commercial fishing fleet shrank by 25 percent due to the decommissioning of vessels implicated in IUU fishing under the 2015-16 reforms, he said the fishing industry can no longer feed the country, let alone supply all of its exported seafood products.

“There are almost no products from Thai fisheries” in seafood products exported from Thailand, he said. These mainly comprise products imported into the country for processing and reexport, he added, “So what is there to fear about reputation?”

Products reexported to regulated international markets could well contain seafood imported from less scrupulous sources, such as Vietnam, which currently holds a yellow card from the EU, Mongkol noted. He called on international buyers like the EU to turn their attention toward investigating the traceability of the seafood import-reexport business in Thailand, rather than imposing restrictions on the country’s fishing vessels. He added that a major focus of the new amendments will be to improve the traceability of seafood products imported into Thailand.

Mongkol said the proposed fisheries reforms also address the financial and bureaucratic burden on Thailand’s commercial fleets that began with the 2015-16 reforms. These, he said, were imposed in a top-down manner with little consultation. Penalties for violations, such as breaches of vessel licensing and crew monitoring protocols, are also too harsh under the current regulations, he added.

He said he’s confident the reforms won’t lead to labour rights violations or human trafficking. The proposals to remove labour protections from the fisheries legislation are an effort to streamline rules that overlap with existing laws and are overly complex, he added, describing the current Fisheries Act as “a mess of laws mixed together.”

Reduce juvenile bycatch

Piya, from the Federation of Thai Fisherfolk Association, represents artisanal fishers on the ministerial committee reviewing the reforms. He said the seas around Thailand used to yield an abundance of fish. In years gone by, he said, fishers could travel in pursuit of separate shoals, but now everyone is obliged to clamour over the same schools of fish.

The main cause of the long-term declines in fish populations, in Piya’s view, is poor regulation of trawlers that catch large volumes of juvenile fish, which are often categorised as “trash” fish and sold for animal feed. Commercial trawlers that fish illegally within inshore waters and damage the gear of small-scale fishers are particularly problematic, he said.

Piya said he wanted to see the new fisheries reforms tackle these illegal operations in coastal seas and address what he called imbalances in accountability between small-scale and commercial fisheries. Stepping up surveillance of commercial vessels, legally defined as those over 30 gross tons, would be an important step, he said. Although the Thai Department of Fisheries says it implements a commercial vessel monitoring protocol, in reality “we see very few fishing boats actually using this system,” Piya said. “I think there is a gap between the monitoring centre and the enforcement.”

Piya and his colleagues at provincial artisanal fishing groups were part of a coalition of 90 civil society organisations that in October 2023 called on Thailand’s policymakers to reconsider the proposed legislative amendments. They have long fought for stricter regulations on the capture of juvenile fish in order to rebuild fish stocks, and view the new reforms as an opportunity to do this.

As part of the ministerial committee, Piya said he respects the government’s vision to rejuvenate Thailand’s fisheries. Aspects of that vision, such as sustainably reviving fish stocks, promoting food security and supporting traditional fishing practices, resonate with him. But in practice, the policymakers don’t live up to their promises: “In reality, it’s just a discourse,” he said, adding he’s seen little concerted action to tighten regulations on damaging fishing practices like trawling that benefit only a few at the expense of future resources.

Proposals to reduce the minimum mesh size of nets used by night fishers are a particular worry, Piya said. The increased efficiency of such small-diameter nets combined with the practice common among commercial vessels of using bright lights to attract fish shoals at night could wreak havoc on marine populations, he said. “This issue is scary,” he said. “It will cause severe destruction of aquatic species.”

Nichanan Tanthanawit, leader of oceans campaigns at Greenpeace Thailand, likewise expressed concern about altering the restrictions on net mesh sizes in an email. She also warned that attempts to alter terminology in key parts of the Fisheries Act could carry severe consequences. For instance, changes to what constitutes “coastal sea zones” in one proposed article could enable commercial fishing vessels to operate in nearshore waters, Nichanan said, a practice that would decimate fragile fish nursery grounds and local fishing livelihoods.

Mongkol from NFAT, however, strongly disagreed that commercial fishing vessels are solely to blame for harvesting juvenile fish. He said the sharp increase in numbers of artisanal vessels, legally defined as boats smaller than 30 gross tons, plying coastal waters means many fish are caught before they’ve even had the chance to emerge from the egg.

While the number of commercial vessels operating in Thai waters shrank by 25 percent following the 2015-16 fisheries reforms, the number of small-scale fishing boats has roughly doubled. According to a 2023 report on the state of Thailand’s fisheries by the EJF, as of 2022, there were 50,639 registered small-scale vessels, representing 83 percent of Thailand’s total fleet, and 10,047 commercial vessels, making up the remaining 17 percent.

 

Only a matter of weeks

Thomson from the EJF said that given the pace of the ministerial committee discussions, there’s a real risk some key articles won’t be discussed in full before the late-June end of the drafting period. He said it’s imperative that due consideration is given to all aspects of the amendments, particularly those that could compromise worker protections and environmental integrity.

“Whatever hadn’t been discussed at that point would revert to the Cabinet draft text,” Thomson wrote in an email. “Currently that still includes relaxing regulations on at-sea trans-shipment, relaxing specific regulations on bottom trawlers, removing labour protections, and removing real-time vessel monitoring requirements.” To avoid this eventuality, the EJF is calling for the committee discussions to be extended “until all of the concerning Articles have been discussed.”

Thomson said that, ultimately, the proposed fisheries reforms are taking Thailand in the wrong direction at a time when policymakers should be improving human and environmental rights standards in line with international momentum. Such action would boost the country’s global reputation as a source of legal and sustainably caught seafood, and bolster its fisheries against the impacts of climate change.

“We only have a matter of weeks left before irreversible and self-destructive damage is inflicted on the fishing industry in Thailand,” he said.

 

Additional reporting by Nicha Wachpanich in Bangkok.

 

This story was first published in Mongabay. Republished with permission.

Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on @CarolynCowan11.

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