Thai fisheries under pressure

27 Feb 2014
Thai fishing boats. Credit: SeaDave/CC BY 2.0

Thai fishing boats. Credit: SeaDave/CC BY 2.0

David Hayes reports on the challenges that Thai fisheries are currently facing.

Thailand’s fisheries industry is facing challenging times as an outbreak of Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS) on the Kingdom’s eastern seaboard has badly hit farmed shrimp production during the past year, creating a global shortage that has driven up shrimp prices in major markets, including the United States and Europe.

The EMS epidemic is not the Thai fishing industry’s only problem. Accusations by various international organisations over the alleged use of forced labour and child workers by some fishing boats and fishery processing plant operators have prompted the Department of Fisheries and other concerned government departments to set up a Good Labour Practices programme in cooperation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to ensure fishing and fishery processing businesses comply with Thai labour laws and relevant ILO conventions.

“Aquaculture has gone down this past year, maybe by 30% or more because of an EMS outbreak which began in eastern Thailand. We are trying to find out the cause of the problem and recover output,” commented Dr Waraporn Prompoj, Senior Expert on International Fisheries Affairs in the Department of Fisheries.

“Production has started to improve again in the last few months as we have started to import bio-secure brood stock from Hawaii. The Department of Fisheries sent a mission to Hawaii to visit facilities there and to bring brood stock back to Thailand.”

Research continues into how EMS entered Thailand after an earlier EMS outbreak in Vietnam in 2012. Shrimp farmers report that EMS outbreaks typically occur within one month of a new shrimp pond being inhabited.

Various causes have been suggested including that the bacteria are carried in the gut of seaworms imported from China, where EMS started in 2009, which are fed to farmed shrimp parent stock.

Another suggestion is that the bacteria causing EMS may have entered the ocean current.

Thailand is the world’s largest supplier of shrimp. According to Somsak Paneetatyasai, President of the Thai Shrimp Association, the Kingdom’s total shrimp exports in 2013 are expected to be about 200,000 tons, worth around US$2.15 billion, when figures are confirmed for the year, representing a sharp drop in tonnage and value compared with shrimp exports of 350,000 tons worth $3.39 billion in 2012.

Somsak was recently quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying that Thailand still remained the world’s leading supplier of shrimp in 2013, in spite of the sharp fall in export shipments.

The United States is the Kingdom’s largest shrimp export market, though Indian shrimp exporters have overtaken Thai exporters as the US’s major shrimp suppliers since Thailand’s EMS outbreak occurred, Somsak said.

While research into EMS continues, the Fisheries Department is working with shrimp farmers to try and eradicate the disease.

“We have closed prawn farms in contaminated areas. We have asked for cooperation from prawn farmers for this,” Dr Waraporn said. “Now the situation is better as we are cleaning up prawn farms and we will reintroduce brood stock there.

“We are applying to the government for a 200 million baht (US$6.2m) brood stock grant. We are not sure how long the brood stock programme will last.”

In addition to pushing up the price of shrimp in the domestic market and in major Thai shrimp importing countries, the shrimp shortage resulting from the EMS outbreak has badly affected local seafood processing plants which have been unable to find sufficient raw material to process for overseas clients.

“We have a lack of material for shrimp processing. That’s why we are trying to bring the production volume back to the previous level,” Dr Waraporn said. “We used to export around 600,000 tonnes of shrimp a year in the past but that volume has now reduced.”

According to the Fisheries Department, Thailand exported fish and fishery products worth US$7.3 billion in 2011. Major export markets are the United States, which took 53% of Thai shrimp and 22% tuna exports by value that year, Japan, the European Union and Canada.

Processed tuna, mostly canned tuna and tuna loins, is Thailand’s other major fishery export apart from shrimp with around 560,000 tons exported in 2012, according to government figures, compared with over 600,000 tons the previous year.

Unlike shrimp, which are locally farmed, Thailand’s fishing fleet catches only a small share of the tuna that is processed for export.

The volume of tuna and other fish species caught in Thai waters has fallen sharply during the past two decades due to overfishing. As a result, more than one million tons of fishery products are imported frozen each year for export processing, much of it tuna for canning.

Thailand’s fisheries production in 2012 is estimated at about 3 million tons, not including distant waters fisheries. Aquaculture is believed to have accounted for almost half of total production. Mariculture represented over half of the total aquaculture output due to the large share of shrimp production.

Meanwhile, the Fisheries Department is one of several government departments and ministries involved in implementing a number of initiatives that are intended to promote improved labour standards and working conditions in Thailand’s fishing industry.

Under implementation in cooperation with various public organisations, private agencies and NGOs, the Fisheries Department’s Good Labour Practice action plan is targeting the fishing, shrimp farming and fisheries processing sectors to ensure fishing and fishery processing businesses comply with Thai labour laws and relevant ILO conventions, following allegations by international organisations of forced labour and child workers along with other unlawful practices being used in Thailand’s fishing industry.

On 2 September 2013, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) announced that a new study based on 598 interviews with people working in the Thai fisheries sector had discovered a number of shortfalls in the Kingdom’s fishing industry in relation to national and international labour standards.

The study noted that 32 respondents (5.4%) had stated they were deceived or coerced into work in fishing, with the largest proportion working on distant waters fishing vessels.

The study found that 17% of those surveyed said they were working against their will and unable to leave because of the threat of financial penalties or for other reasons including the threat of violence or denunciation to the authorities.

In addition the study revealed 33 children under the age of 18 working on fishing vessels, of which seven were aged under 15 years old.

The ILO report stated that many of the problems faced by fishermen are compounded by a lack of employment contracts and that 94% of those surveyed did not have a written contract. As a result, working hours and conditions, the method of calculating pay, and the frequency of pay and deductions were not clearly defined.

Other factors contributing to fishermen’s problems include the irregular status of migrant fishermen, limited monitoring by Thailand’s labour inspectorate and other relevant bodies, and the lack of any representative workers’ group.

To tackle these problems, the Thai government has set up a number of Labour Coordination Centres (LCCs) specifically for the fishing industry to enable fishermen, shrimp farm workers and fishery processing plant workers to be registered and trained.

The government initiative, which is being implemented by the Fisheries Department and Department of Labour with technical support from the ILO and in cooperation with employers, is intended to ensure greater protection for fishing industry workers in both recruitment and employment.

Other initiatives underway include measures to improve labour inspection, occupational safety and health, and to develop a code of conduct and a good labour practices training programme for fishing vessel owners and captains.

“We have set up seven LCC centres to serve 32 coastal provinces. Fishing companies bring their workers to get registered, so those people who are illegal workers are legalised and then treated properly,” Dr Waraporn explained. “Before they were unseen, now they are seen.

“We have a database to record them in our system under the Department of Labour. The Department of Fisheries will issue a license to fishing companies with registered fishermen.

“We have joined hands with other departments for the labour inspection: the Labour Department is in charge of the labour inspection; the Marine Department does fishing vessel registrations and Fisheries Department does the fishing licenses every year.”

Because the fisheries sector is labour intensive by its nature, the industry provides a large number of job opportunities to Thai workers along with large numbers of migrant workers, many of whom are from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

The government estimates that the fisheries sector generates jobs for more than one million workers in fishing, shrimp farming, fishery processing and other related sectors.

One reason for the large number of foreign fishermen working on Thai vessels is that many Thai fishermen left the industry after Typhoon Gay caused many deaths among Thai fishing crews in 1992.

Work continues to ensure that all workers in the fishing industry are properly registered with companies importing seafood from Thailand and government agencies in major importing countries following progress and developments with interest.

“The reaction from foreign importers is that they are eager to know what we are doing,” “Dr Waraporn said. “Walmart and Costco of the United States have planned to do a social audit. Fisheries Department officials have visited them and explained to them about labour practices here.”

Fisheries Department and Labour Department officials are contacting fishing companies and fishing boat owners to inform them of the registration programme and encourage them to register all their fishermen and other workers.

Estimates of fishermen numbers working on Thai fishing boats range from 150,000 to 200,000 workers. Actual numbers will be known as registration progresses.

“The Fisheries Department is trying to engage coastal fishing groups to register their workers at LCC and Labour Department offices,” Dr Waraporn said. “Also, we encourage Thai vessels fishing in Myanmar’s waters to register their staff – about 100 vessels employing around 3,000 fishermen, mostly from Myanmar, already have joined the programme.”

Another group the Fisheries Department, working with the Department of Special Investigation under the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Employment, has persuaded to cooperate are the Samaesan fishermen’s group based in Chonburi on the eastern seaboard.

The group, which operate 192 fishing boats employing about 2,000 fishermen, recently agreed to bring its illegal workers from Myanmar and Cambodia to register at the local LCC centre and with the Labour Department.

“We have been working hard to improve the labour situation; we have had a few headaches,” Dr Waraporn said. “Although the Fisheries Department is not in charge of fisheries labour, this is important to the fishing industry so we have to work with fishing groups and other government departments to solve this situation.

“Fishery importers in Europe also have learned about this. The EEC Commission has asked us about the situation. We have sent a full report to the Commission in November and explained what we have done.

“Also, in May 2014 at the European seafood show we will hold a seminar to explain what we are doing.”

Action plan
Meanwhile, the Fisheries Department in conjunction with the Labour Department, and with technical support from the ILO, is continuing to implement its Ten Point fisheries sector action plan, that is intended to promote improved labour standards and working conditions in Thailand’s fishing industry.

The action plan includes development of Good Labour Practices (GLP) programme targeting the fishing, shrimp farming and fisheries processing sectors following original allegations by international organisations of forced labour and child workers along with other unlawful practices being used in Thailand’s fishing industry.

Other action plan targets involve the development of recommendations for a Hazardous Work List for the shrimp and seafood industry to protect young workers; the surveying and registration of primary processing shrimp and seafood enterprises; and development of a Safety and Health Training Manual for the commercial fishing industry.

The development of a system for registration and documentation of fishing vessels and fishing crews for efficient inspection, is included in the action plan; also, development of a system of fishing vessel, fishing gear and crew inspection; and development of a Vessel Monitoring System to monitor fishing crews’ movements in Thai vessels in international waters.

Development of operational guidelines for Port in - Port out inspection for fishing vessels in international waters is another action plan target; also, development of labour reduction technology for fishing vessels; and setting up LCC centres for the fishing industry which, as noted earlier, already is underway.

“On 16 September 2013, we had 178 stakeholders, namely: 81 primary fishery processing companies, 65 frozen seafood processors and 32 seafood canning companies, who signed a Letter of Intent to commit to Good Labour Practices,” Dr Waraporn said.

“In early 2014 we plan to be training fishing companies to apply Good Labour Practices to the fishing industry. The fishery processing industry has done it first.”

Further backing to the Good Labour Practices Programme was given in November when eight industrial associations involved in Thailand’s fishing industry signed a MoU to encourage sustainable fishing to protect the Kingdom’s fishery sector.

Under the MoU, all stakeholders commit to focus on fishery production using sustainable, non-harmful fishing methods, to use legal labour, and to meet required food safety standards.

Those signing the MoU were: the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, the Overseas Fisheries Association, Thai Fishmeal Producers Association, Thai Feed Mill Association, Thai Frozen Foods Association, Thai Shrimp Association, Thai Tuna Industry Association and Thai Food Processors’ Association.

“We cannot afford to lose this fishing industry,” Dr Waraporn said. “The eight associations joining shows the importance of this.”