Thailand steps up enforcement to avoid EU import ban

Fish for sale at a Thai supermarket Fish for sale at a Thai supermarket

Thailand’s fishing industry is awaiting the outcome of an inspection by an EU delegation in late January of new measures being enforced by the government to combat illegal fishing and to prevent the use of trafficked labour by the fisheries industry, reports David Hayes.

The new measures were introduced recently following the issuing of a ‘yellow card’ by the EU last April over the Kingdom’s previous failure to crack down on IUU fishing and to eliminate the use of slave labour on fishing boats and in fish processing plants.

At stake is the future of Thailand’s fishery exports to the EU which Thai officials say are worth up to US$1 billion a year, as well as the possibility of bans from other important export markets should the government be found having failed to take adequate measures to combat IUU fishing and to prevent slave labour being used.

The threat of the EU issuing a ‘red card’ and banning Thai fisheries imports, which would severely damage the Kingdom’s large fishing and processing industries, has spurred the military government in Bangkok headed by General Prayut Chan-ocha into action.

IUU fishing
Efforts to eliminate IUU fishing and ensure the sustainability of Thailand’s fisheries have been strengthened with the enactment of the new Royal Ordinance on Fisheries B.E. 2558 (2015) which was approved by the Cabinet and received royal assent on 14 November 2015.

Consisting of 176 sections the new law is designed to achieve its objectives through five mechanisms: a licensing system, a vessel monitoring system, vessel inspection, a traceability system and effective law enforcement.

The new law is being implemented through 28 port-in-port-out centres at Thailand’s main fishing ports by officers from the Department of Fisheries (DoF), Ministry of Labour, Marine Department and mobile team units, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced on 14 January.

DoF responsibilities have grown under the new ordinance which has increased the department’s manpower requirements. DoF officers now inspect all fishing boats before departure on fishing trips to prevent illegal fishing and the use of slave labour.

“DoF has to inspect the vessel registration before departure; also, the fishing gear, crew members and their nationalities,” explained Chamnarn Pongsri, senior expert at the Department of Fisheries.

“Before DoF did not have this responsibility as we did not have a law covering this. We share this responsibility with the Ministry of Labour and other agencies, so it’s a big change.”

Currently DoF is training a national team of observers on board to be based in Thailand’s fishing ports. The first batch of observers completed training in December and were due to be deployed recently.

“We require more staff. We are now hiring and training people. There will be many hundreds of new staff as we have 28 fishing port offices,” Chamnarn said.

Two main systems have been set up to implement the new fisheries law. A Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) system has been established at the government’s Command Centre for Combating Illegal Fishing and the DoF and soon will be integrated with all local centres.

In addition, VMS systems have been installed on 2,076 or 94% out of 2,216 Thai fishing vessels of 60 gross tons or more, the MFA said.

The government has also launched a fisheries traceability system that enables fisheries officials and consumers to discover whether fishery products originate from illegal fishing.

The traceability system includes an E-license system that is due to be operational by the end of March and a real time online vessel registration system that became operational in December 2015. In addition, observers on board fishing vessels will support the traceability initiative while separate training and support is being provided for other officials involved in the traceability programme.

Whether the government’s efforts to date to combat IUU fishing and the use of slave labour satisfied the EU inspection team that visited Thailand in January remains to be seen.

According to the MFA the new law already has had an important impact in tackling illegal activities through coordinated inspections in fishing ports and fishery processing plants.

As of mid-January some 474 fishing vessels of 60 tons or more operating in Thai waters and 73 vessels of the same operating outside Thai waters had been inspected.

MFA said that of the inspected vessels, 90 were found to violate the new ordinance and were being prosecuted.

In other recent initiatives the Thai government introduced a temporary ban lasting 180 days on the transhipment of fishery products at sea by Thai-flagged vessels to eliminate the possibility of illegally caught fish being transhipped and by Thai vessels on the high seas or operating in other nation’s waters.

Illegal labour
Eliminating the use of illegal labour on all Thai-flagged vessels also is being targeted.

“In our effort to legalise the foreign workforce, employers are urged to register their foreign workers in order to get permits by February 2016,” the MFA said.

“At the moment over 35,000 have done so. Moreover, on 12 January the Cabinet has approved in principle two additional measures to improve workers’ rights.

“These are (1) a draft ministerial regulation on prohibition of hiring of labour aged less than 18 years old, and (2) a bill on human trafficking case procedure.”

MOUs on fisheries and labour have been signed or are in the process of negotiation by Thailand with 13 countries, MFA said, noting that bilateral MOUs on labour importation have been signed with Cambodia and Vietnam already.

Thailand’s new fisheries ordinance marks an important change in fisheries legislation after repeated unsuccessful attempts by DoF to introduce more modern laws during the past decade.

Proposed new fisheries legislation previously had been held up or derailed by Thailand’s political instability in recent years. In addition, fisheries has not been considered a priority by political parties holding power.

“The new ordinance was drafted by a big committee including fishing associations and the Department of Fisheries. Legal fishermen are happy with the new ordinance but those doing grey fishing operations will feel uncomfortable,” Chamnarn remarked.

“For example, if a fishing company uses illegal labour and the well-being of their labour is unsatisfactory on board or in a fish processing plant then the DoF can close them.

“The new Royal Ordinance shows the commitment of the new government to protect fisheries, to promote sustainable fisheries management and non-IUU fishing.

“Punishment now for IUU fishing is strong. In the past punishment was weak but with the new ordinance punishment and deterrence are strong. This provides a new opportunity to support sustainable fisheries management.”

Sustainable production
Although promulgated in response to pressure from the EU to make a make real effort to eliminate IUU fishing and the use of illegal labour, the Thai government has used the new fishing industry laws to establish a new policy framework for fisheries development with an emphasis on sustainable production.

The new law recognises the importance of the fishing industry to the national economy and its role as an important employer and source of livelihood in coastal communities.

New regulations provide for Thailand National Fisheries Committee and provincial fishing industry groups to set up rules and manage fisheries within their areas of authority. Membership of the national and local committees is specified under the law and includes government agencies, the private sector and various fisheries committees and associations.

“The policy is very clear – rather than increase production we will change to sustainable production of existing resources. The DoF will manage with maximum sustainable yield. Fishing licenses will be issued according to resources, it’s not free fishing access any more,” Chamnarn remarked.

“There are big efforts to reduce the bycatch under the new ordinance by enlarging the mesh size to 5cm for trawlers. Also, many fishing gears are banned such as push nets, except for small crustaceans, and stake traps.

“The new ordinance has a clear direction to promote environmentally friendly production practices and to protect the environment as well. All in all, the ordinance is more responsible.”

According to DoF forecasts Thailand’s total fisheries production should stabilise in future at a sustainable level as new fisheries regulations take effect.

In 2014 total fisheries production reached an estimated 2.7 million metric tons (mt), registering a decrease of 3.6% compared total production of 2.8 million mt the previous year.

Total production has declined annually in the past six years due the reduction in capture fisheries and a sharp decrease in coastal aquaculture output, caused by a decline in farmed shrimp output due to Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS).

However, although last year’s results are still being calculated, total fisheries production in 2015 was forecasted at 2.74 million mt, an increase of 1.5% compared with 2014 due to an early slight improvement in marine capture fisheries.

Marine fisheries overall including wild capture and coastal aquaculture is Thailand’s main source of fishery production totalling an estimated 2.07 million mt in 2014, down 4.% compared with the previous year and accounting for 74% of the Kingdom’s total fisheries output.

Wild capture marine fisheries alone totalled an estimated 1.56 million mt in 2014 accounting for 74% of total marine fisheries output. The overall fish catch including all species was an estimated 1.27 million mt representing 81% of overall marine capture fisheries output.

According to DoF forecasts, in 2015 total marine fisheries was forecasted to grow by 3% to 2.13 million mt, showing a slight improvement last year.

Squid is Thailand’s second largest marine capture category after fish totalling an estimated 124,000 mt in 2014 with the 2015 squid catch forecasted to remain close to the same level.

Wild shrimp are next in volume with an estimated 49,000 mt of wild shrimp caught in 2014, a figure expected to decrease by 10% to a forecasted 44,000 in 2015.

Other important marine capture species are crab with an estimated 33,000 mt caught in 2014 and very close to the same volume forecasted for 2015.

Production of wild clams, meanwhile is estimated at 20,500 mt in 2014, with wild clam capture forecasted at a similar level; last year.

“The marine catch is bigger in the Gulf of Thailand and smaller in the Andaman Sea, partly because there is a stronger monsoon in the Andaman and fishing boats cannot fish then,” Chamnarn explained.

“There are more fishers in the Gulf but fishing restrictions in the Gulf are more severe as there are more closed days than in the Andaman. DoF has reduced fishing days as there many fishing boats. In future fishing boat licenses will be based on maximum fishing yield.”

Thailand’s coastal aquaculture sector, meanwhile, is dominated by shrimp farming which has seen production drop by half from previous levels for the past three years after an EMS epidemic struck in 2013.

Shrimp farm production stood at an estimated 282,000 mt in 2014, according to DoF, less than half the 610,000 mt produced in 2012 just before the EMS epidemic struck.

With the EMS epidemic apparently contained, coastal shrimp farming is forecasted to show a slight improvement when figures are totalled for 2015 with a 2.8% increase forecasted to reach 290,000 mt last year.

Coastal fish farming remains stable with output focusing on higher value fish such as grouper. An estimated 20,500 mt were produced in 2014 with production forecasted to show a 5% increase to 21,300 mt in 2015.

“White leg shrimp in brackish coastal water is still the largest commodity in coastal aquaculture. There is a tendency for the yield to improve now but slowly,” Chamnarn said.

“Fish farmers know more how to deal with the EMS situation so the level of success is higher. Everywhere was affected but all areas have improved.

“The tonnage produced is less as farmers are selling their shrimp at a smaller size and at a younger age than before because of the risk of death.”

Thailand’s freshwater fisheries sector, meanwhile, has decreased for the past five years due to a decline in inland aquaculture.

Freshwater fisheries account for 23% of Thailand’s overall fisheries production.

Total freshwater fisheries production was an estimated 633,000 mt in 2014 registering a 2% decrease from 646,000 mt the previous year.

Currently one third of freshwater fisheries production is from capture fisheries and two thirds from inland aquaculture most of which are freshwater fish species.

“Freshwater aquaculture is not a big growth as the profit margin is not attractive,” Chamnarn remarked. “Tilapia and hybrid catfish are the main products; also, some giant prawns and barb fish.

“Thai fish farmers have a lot of skill. They take up technology very quickly if the cost benefit is favourable.”

Meanwhile, Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of fisheries exporting seafood products worth US$7 million in 2013 while imports of fish and seafood were worth $3.2 billion, most being used for export processing.

The EU is Thailand’s third largest seafood market after the United States which took 22.8% of exports by value in 2013 and Japan which took 20.4%.

Thailand’s major exports are tuna products which were worth US$2.6 billion in 2013, shrimp and prawns worth $2 billion and cuttlefish and squid worth $314 million.


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