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Politics

Thailand combats illegal fishing after EU threatens seafood ban

Government destroys unlicensed boats as $500m sanctions loom

Thailand destroys unregistered fishing vessels in September in a show of force for international observers. (Photo by Marimi Kishimoto)

BANGKOK -- Thailand's government is ramping up its crackdown on unlicensed fishing boats -- which are often a hotbed of forced labor -- in a bid to ward off a ban on seafood exports to the European Union.

On Sept. 12, representatives from 10 nations were invited to the coastal province of Samut Sakhon to witness the destruction of nine illegal fishing boats. An excavator demolished the decrepit ships, to demonstrate to the EU delegation that Thailand is taking the problem seriously.

Western nongovernmental groups have shed light on unregulated fishing boats often forcing migrant workers from Myanmar and other countries to work under conditions comparable to slavery. The vessels are also known to engage in illegal fishing. 

In 2015, the EU put Thailand's government on notice for failing to adequately monitor fishing boats or ensure the traceability of marine fishery products. The so-called "yellow card" warning meant that a lack of improvement would result in a ban on all Thai seafood imports.

Starting that year, Thailand implemented laws mandating fishing boats to display license plates, and published a list of registered vessels for the benefit of all ports. Authorities have pushed ahead with the dismantling of vessels unclaimed by owners.

However, licensed boats are required to have GPS tracking devices and to register the names of non-Thai crew members. Because of the costs and effort needed to comply with those requirements, many ships simply went rogue. Even if the vessels were caught, fines could not be levied if ship owners could not be identified.

Thai government officials say they have endeavored to eradicate illegal fishing, pointing to the roughly 10,000 vessels registered as of mid-August. Authorities claim the number of unregulated ships has decreased drastically as well.

Thai seafood companies mainly ship frozen shrimp and canned tuna to Europe. An EU trade sanction would result in up to $500 million in losses, according to a Thai research firm.

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