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International relations

EU remains unconvinced by Thai seafood industry reforms

Big fishing companies are resisting official efforts to eliminate unsustainable practices

Many vulnerable migrant workers are used to unload and sort fish in Thai ports.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's multi-billion dollar seafood industry continues to be assailed by the European Union, which is refusing to give the sector a clean bill of health following decades of exploitative and unregulated fishing offshore.

The latest ruling has set back the military government's hopes of getting a "yellow card" warning dropped. The EU raised it in April 2015 when it threatened to ban all Thai seafood imports.

A recent visiting EU team conceded Thailand had made significant headway against "illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)" fishing, which the EU wants to see stamped out entirely. Nonetheless, one EU diplomat told the Nikkei Asian Review that there remain "deficiencies in the legal and the administrative systems to fight IUU fishing that have not yet been fully addressed."

With dialogue still ongoing, the diplomat said: "We cannot pre-empt any action, positive or negative, about the yellow card status of Thailand." 

Thai sources who have tracked the three-year tussle between the junta, influential trawler associations, and the EU are quite clear about the areas in which Thailand continues to fall short. Its most recent fishery law, for example, grants the minister of agriculture authority to classify the minimum size of fish netted by Thai-owned trawlers. "This has not been implemented because it will directly affect the regular catch by trawlers and the fishing industry," one observer told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Government efforts to monitor all Thai and foreign trawlers -- something the  EU requires -- have yielded mixed results. Using a "port-in-port-out" tracking system, the navy has been enlisted to keep an eye on thousands of registered trawlers using ports in 22 provinces. But not all of the estimated 30,000 trawlers have co-operated with official oversight efforts intended to satisfy the EU.

The EU finally raised a yellow card on Thailand in 2015 after years of environmentally damaging fishing and abusive labor practices.   © Reuters

Ahead of an EU announcement expected in the coming weeks, Thai agriculture officials are getting more bad signals from Brussels. "Two issues behind the EU decision to not upgrade Thailand's anti-IUU ratings are fleet management and law enforcement," an agriculture ministry source told The Nation, an English-language daily.

Earlier in the year, the government sounded more sanguine; it expected a determined enforcement drive would bring large commercial trawler owners into line. "On Jan. 25, the national strategy committee agreed that the country should announce it is free of IUU fishing practices," Gen. Chatchai Sarikulya, a deputy prime minister and the cabinet's point man on fishery issues, told the local press.

Thai fishing vessels have been in the spotlight for years for exploiting offshore waters and going increasingly further afield to feed the lucrative seafood supply chain. According to local and international reports, the average trawler catch along the Thai coast fell to 17.8 kg of fish per hour in 2010 compared to 300 kg per hour in 1961.

Europe currently absorbs 12% of the 1.8 million tons of seafood Thailand exports annually. After the EU flashed its yellow card, imports dropped to 426 million euros in 2016 from 476 million euros in 2015. 

The U.S. and Japan remain the largest buyers of Thai seafood, which generated close to $7 billion in total in 2016 -- some 4% of all Thai exports. 

The government has some powerful domestic allies. Thai Union Group, the world's largest producer of canned tuna, has pledged to clean up its supply chain. Last year, it struck a deal with Greenpeace, an international environmental activist group, to reduce "destructive fishing practices."

Against this, the government faces a backlash from the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, which brought out thousands of its members on strike to protest EU demands. "Fishermen are unhappy with fishing regulations prescribed by authorities," its president said in April before filing a complaint to the cabinet. 

Coastal communities that have seen fish stocks decimated have no sympathy for the big trawlers, however. They point to the massive environmental damage caused by drag nets that scoop everything up off the seabed. In 2017, the estimated loss of "juvenile fish" netted prematurely was some 1.4 billion baht, a local community leader said during a Bangkok seminar this week on the plight of the fishing sector.

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