Fisheries dept caught out

Coastal and small-scale fishermen have more than one good reason to vent their frustration at the Fisheries Department for its persistent ignorance of their plight caused mainly by the illegal push-net trawlers which have almost completely depleted the Gulf of Thailand of fish stocks and other marine life with their environmentally destructive fishing equipment.

Their protest at the department yesterday was meant to remind its officials of their two still unanswered demands made two weeks ago.

The first demand is for the department to withdraw from the cabinet its proposal to grant a blanket amnesty to 5,000 illegal push-net trawlers in an attempt to beat the European Union's (EU) boycott threat against marine products from Thailand.

The other is to put on hold the department's proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act which fail to address communities' rights to manage fishery resources and the problem of environmentally destructive fishing practices such as the use of very fine push nets and electricity to catch fish and other marine animals

The idea of a blanket amnesty for the illegal push-net trawlers is badly thought out, short-sighted and meant for the interest of the trawlers or, to be more specific, the wealthy fishermen or fishing tycoons at the expense of the poor fishermen who make a humble living by fishing in shallow waters within three kilometres of the shoreline.

The department is deceiving itself if it thinks that by turning all the illegal trawlers into legitimate vessels under a blanket amnesty, the local fishing industry will be spared the wrath of the EU boycott threats.

Sooner or later, the truth will emerge that it has not done anything against the use of environmentally destructive fishing equipment by these trawlers _ as has been the case, in fact, for the whole three decades since such instruments were introduced. Coastal fishermen have been complaining against such illegal practices for years, regrettably to no avail.

The answer from the department has always been the same, despite all those years and changes of the man in charge _ which is a shortage of manpower and vessels to patrol the seas to monitor trawlers' movements.

Given the Fisheries Department's shoddy track record of law enforcement, how can we be sure that once a blanket amnesty is granted, the illegal trawlers will suddenly turn law-abiding and give up their illegal and destructive fishing practices? Or will the department automatically become superbly effective and decide to strictly enforce the law?

It should also be noted that the local fishing industry, including both legal and illegal fishing vessels, is notorious for the abuse of migrant workers _ many of whom are cheated, placed in debt bondage and forced to work in slave-like conditions on fishing trawlers. Such human rights violations are cited as another reason for the EU boycott threats.

The department yesterday agreed to shelve its amnesty proposal in response to the protest. This is not enough because the trawlers can still continue destroying the seas amid state negligence.

The duty of the department is to protect the sea from destruction, not to protect rich fishermen and to allow them to plunder marine resources. Of course, there is a middle-path option, that both rich and poor fishermen can share the spoils from the seas in a sustainable fashion. This is the path the department must walk. Most of all, it must strictly enforce the law and deal with violators accordingly.