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Thai seafood industry grapples with international scrutiny

EU and US consider action on illegal fishing practices, worker abuse

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A Thai boy shows fish after fishermen returned from a trip on boats to Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village on Thailand's Andaman Sea coast.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- In Samut Sakhon, a thriving fishing port on the southern fringes of Bangkok, owners of boat repair shops and other businesses dependent on the seafood industry complain about a drop in income since mid-2015. They are not expecting a recovery soon. Similar grumblings can be heard throughout nearly 30 other major fishing ports in Thailand, where trawlers laden with catch from Thai and international waters drop anchor. All those involved in Thailand's lucrative seafood export industry are feeling the effect of a threat by the European Union in April 2015 to ban imports of Thai fish products unless the country's $5.5 billion sector ends environmentally damaging fishing practices and abusive labor practices.

The EU imported 426 million euros ($496.5 million) of seafood products from Thailand in 2016 -- a significant drop from 476 million euros the year before, according to European Commission figures. But it nevertheless remains Thailand's third largest market for seafood exports after the U.S. and Japan. The EU consumes 12% of the 1.8 million tons of seafood Thailand exports annually. By issuing a "yellow card," to warn of possible sanctions, the EU was hoping to press Thailand's military-backed government to end "illegal, unreported and unregulated" (IUU) fishing and improve labor standards. Brussels has maintained pressure since then, repeating its threat after periodic reviews and official missions.

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