Beating a path to sustainability as Thailand underlines its determination to be free of IUU

Thailand’s efforts against IUU fishing Thailand is determined to free itself of IUU fishing

Thailand wants to be recognised internationally for its efforts to make illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) a thing of the past and in doing so herald a new sustainable and socially responsible era for its fisheries and broader seafood sector, reports Jason Holland.

For the last three years, the South East Asian country has been working to address its illegal fishing problems and the so-called “yellow card” warning it received from the European Commission after it was deemed to not be taking sufficient measures against IUU, with a completely reformed fisheries law providing the platform for the overhaul.

“The Kingdom of Thailand wants to be IUU-free. It is our aspiration to be a country free of IUU products, whether from our own people or imported from other places,” said Virachi Plasai, Thailand’s ambassador for New York and Washington and permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations.

Virachi stressed that becoming free of IUU was also a policy goal of the Royal Thai Government. “Why? Because this is something that will benefit everybody in this generation and the next generations to come. We want to have sustainable fisheries and we want to live in a world that provides a better environment for all. And one of the most important things to do is to eradicate IUU fishing and in the process also forced labour and human trafficking that have unfortunately been part of this industry for some time. But it will be no more, let me assure you of that,” he said.

Building measures

In 2015, in addition to implementing the new fisheries policy that put tackling IUU fishing on the national agenda, the Thai government established a Command Centre for Combatting IUU Fishing (CCIF). Complying with international regulations, CCIF is the principle organisation for tackling the problem. It also established port in, port out controlling centres, imposed vessel monitoring systems (VMS) on board all catching craft, as well as a fishing information network that links data from an electronic fishing licensing system (e-License) and the VMS.

The following year, in which Thailand acceded to the FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), the international treaty aimed at combating IUU, authorities improved the effectiveness of an existing traceability system and improved the monitoring, patrol and surveillance systems (MCS). At the same time, commercial fishing licences and the renewal of vessel permits began to be issued on the basis of eligible fishery resources.

Many further upgrades were made in 2017, in addition to establishing multi-disciplinary teams to inspect labour at sea and in processing factories. And this year, management systems have been made electronic in order to control and monitor fishing operations by common risk assessment. The intention is also to set measures that reduce the number of fishing vessels to operate within maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for the 2018/19 season, and to establish measuring criteria for Thai vessels operating outside of Thai waters to comply with international standards.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s traceability system is being further enhanced to cover both the domestic catch and imported products.

“We are almost finished developing it. When it’s 100% operational, we will be able to trace every fish and piece of seafood that you see on your plate and know when and where it was harvested,” said Virachi.

New thinking

Dr Adisorn Promthep, director-general with Thailand’s Department of Fisheries, is delighted with the industry’s transformation.

“Three years ago we had a lot of problems in the fisheries sector and very few solutions, but now we see that we have a new law, and a new system in place to control Thai fishing vessels, both in Thailand and in international waters,” he said.

The secret to the successful implementation of a sustainable fisheries strategy, owes much to a “new way of thinking,” shared by government authorities, fishermen and the private sector – with the same overriding target to create a sustainable fishery together. This common ground included an agreement to reduce the “problematic” 10,0000-strong catching fleet to a size that is proportionate with Thailand’s resources and based on MSY calculations, said Adisorn.

“In the beginning, everybody resisted the change, even my staff in the Department of Fisheries; they didn’t think that we could work with the new system at all and that we couldn’t work or cooperate with the fishing sector. But during the past two or three years, we’ve started talking and working together.

“We showed them that they were getting less and less fish in Thai waters and that they were having to go out to catch everything that they found. [We said] it’s not going to be possible to continue that way for a long period of time; we need to change now. We need to work out how many fishing vessels can be in the water fishing, so we are adapting and working together to achieve the same goal.”

Adisorn stressed that a sustainable fisheries would not be achieved within just a few years, and that it would take some time for Thailand to recover from the practices of the past 10 to 20 years.

Nevertheless, there are already good signs, he said. “The fishermen are saying they are finding more fish in the water and that they are larger, while different species that they haven’t seen in several years starting to come back. Also, the small-scale fishermen that work really closely to the shore are having less problems with the commercial fishing vessels that used to come into their territories. They are beginning to work together to share the resources.

“In the end, we will only consume and export IUU-free fish and fishery products. But this won’t be achieved in just a few years. This is our start, our beginning and we are determined to achieve those goals.”​

Legal crackdown

Unquestionably, effective law enforcement and prosecution will have a huge say in whether Thailand can meet its IUU-free goal. Three years ago, a committee was set up to solve the challenge and a subcommittee was especially created to look after the legal and enforcement side, led by Police Lt General Jaruvat Vaisaya of the Royal Thai Police.

“The Thai government is fully committed to ensuring the law enforcement against all forms of IUU,” he said.

After three years (1 May 2015 to 28 February 2018), the total number of cases brought against alleged illegal fishing activities in Thai waters was 4,285. Of these, 3,679 cases or 86% have been successfully closed. Jaruvat acknowledged that while the sheer number of cases seems very large for a country seeking to be IUU-free, the majority of these crimes took place in 2015 and 2016 when the new legal framework was getting underway.

“The number of new offences has fallen dramatically,” he said.

Virachi also conceded that the aspect of law enforcement had been “difficult”, because it was a new area for Thailand’s law enforcement, for its prosecutors and also for its ports. “But after nearly three years, we now have more expertise and experience and I can safely say now that the prosecution side is very strong.

“So, in 2018, we think we have one of the most advanced fisheries law anywhere on this planet.

“The government, private sectors, scientists and everyone in Thailand – will do everything that we can to realise this ambition of becoming IUU-free,” he said.

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