An ill-judged ultimatum by the European Union threatens a Bt30-billion loss in exports
The fishing port sits idle, bereft of the commotion that normally characterises Thailand’s busiest fishing harbour. Trawlers large and small rest placidly underneath the noontime sun, the crews on strike against what they say are unfair government measures to stop illegal fishing.
The situation at Samut Sakhon and other ports around Thailand was provoked by an European Union ultimatum against illegal fishing, which has thrown the world’s third-largest supplier of seafood into disarray and shut down parts of an industry worth more than Bt200 billion.
In April, the EU yellow-carded the Thai fishing industry giving the country six months to fix its illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) or face an expensive ban on seafood exports into the EU.
The ultimatum came even though most of the catch landed by Thai fishermen is not destined for the EU, which issued the threat as part of its larger attempt to crack down on all IUU incidents worldwide. But the ban would unfairly affect an industry that profits little or not at all from illegal fishing.
Most Thai exports to the EU are farmed prawns or processed fish, which have little to do with the fishing boat industry, according to Waraporn Prompoj, deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry’s department of fisheries.
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of the fisheries department at Kasetsart University and a member of the government’s National Reform Council, agrees.
“The main seafood exports from Thailand are frozen shrimps, canned tuna and crab stick, which are farmed or imported for processing,” he says.
“Fresh fish caught in Thai waters are mostly consumed in the country, so the impact will be more on domestic consumption rather than export.”
For the military-backed government, it is the latest in a series of headaches concerning the country’s troubled fishing industry, already accused of using of migrants as slave labour.
The country faces the loss of Bt30 billion in seafood exports to the EU, industry officials says. The government is also under increasing pressure from groups like the Frozen Foods Association and the Shrimp Association, to crack down on the illegal fishing because their industries would suffer from a ban.
“The government has given a deadline of July 18 [tomorrow] to the fishing industry to register their ships and comply by regulations or face substantial fines should they be caught fishing,” Navy spokesman Captain Benjamaporn Wongnakornsawang says. Captain Benjamaporn is part of a special government task force set up in response to the ultimatum. It is charged with performing inspections and ordering arrests and fines for violators of the IUU fishing regulations.
Those in the fishing industry argue that the government has not given them enough time to comply. They need to register boats with local authorities, install vessel monitoring systems on ships larger than 30 tonnes, and completely end the practice of bottom trawling and pushnets.
“Most of the 30,000 fishing trawlers around the country are capable of making these changes,” says Supaporn Anuchiracheeva, of the non-governmental Earth NetFoundation.
“Many of them haven’t because they did not believe the government would go through with enforcing the new rules, like all previous governments.”
But according to Supaporn, the current government is unwilling to risk the EU ban and its actions so far have shown unprecedented willingness to tackle the IUU
In response to the potential crackdown by the government, 4,000 ships outfitted with trawling and illegal push net equipment have organised wider strikes that have crippled ports like Samut Sakhon.
If the strike were to continue for a year, about 300,000 tonnes of catch would disappear or about 10 per cent of the total market, according to reports. Already, local markets have seen price hikes on certain fish products as a result of the strikes.
“I think the government would be wise to wait out the strikes,” says Supaporn. “The fishermen can’t strike forever and the solidarity between the larger fleet and the 4,000 illegal ships will fray overtime.”
But the ongoing saga bodes poorly for people like Wuthichai Boonmee, a wholesaler who buys fish from Mahachai fish market in Samut Sakhon and sells to restaurants in Bangkok.
“Prices are up and there are less fish. I don’t care about the EU or the fishermen, I care that my livelihood is affected.”