Quotas and the future of the fishery sector
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Quotas and the future of the fishery sector

This week is full of promising news about marine conservation. And if you wonder why, take a look at the calendar, June 8 marked the United Nations' World Oceans Day. State authorities are using this week to hold events and launch a campaign and initiatives to pay tribute to the Sea Mother.

For instance, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa on World Oceans Day pledged to resolve the issue of plastic waste which has become a major source of marine debris. Over the past few years, not a single month has gone by without the death of a sea creature with plastic waste clogged in their digestive system being reported.

The ministry will also support communities in sustainable tourism. Local operators will receive quotas to bring tourists into national parks before any outside business operators. Mr Varawut said this policy will enable locals to become guardians of the sea.

Not all marine conservation initiatives are as blessed, however. The Fisheries Department and National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT) met on Tuesday and discussed the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), or sustainable catch quota, to prevent overfishing.

Overfishing is an issue in Thailand and the UN has warned against it.

The meeting did not go well. NFAT representatives staged a walk-out and then threatened to launch nationwide protests if the department goes ahead with an initiative to limit catches. The initiative is aimed at avoiding long-term depletion of fish stocks.

"The new system is not suitable for the ecology of Thailand's waters," Mongkol Sukcharoen, NFAT chairman, told me over the phone. His voice suggested he was seething with anger.

NFAT is the country's largest fishery association. All owners of big commercial trawlers in 22 coastal provinces are NFAT members. The group is known for staging big protests in Bangkok and at various piers to advance their cause.

They have also issued threats to cripple the fishery industry. Their voices get heard because the sector brings in revenue and creates jobs for the country.

Commercial trawlers are permitted to fish for 240 days in the Gulf of Thailand and 270 days in the Andaman Sea.

The enforcement of MSY would require trawler owners to accept conservation guidelines, including what types of fish they can catch and how much each can weigh. Mr Mongkol accused the department of incorrectly calculating fishery data.

Owners of commercial trawlers during the meeting felt the MSY quota was impractical and would waste marine resources even more. But in practice, it would only require fishermen to avoid catching smaller fish and throw some back into the sea.

"This initiative is suited for fishing in cold western seas. There are fewer species to catch [there]. But in Thai seas there is a variety of fish," Mr Mongkol said.

You might wonder: What does the association need? "We want to catch fish the old way," the NFAT chairman said, threatening to hold protests.

The association has its own solution for curbing overfishing: if the government wants to curb overfishing, it should buy out some commercial trawlers and reduce the number of fishing boats in the ocean.

The frustration is understandable. Catches must be sustainable and traceable. Trawlers are no longer allowed to fish freely for some two hundred days in Thai waters. The days of lightly regulated fishing are going to be a thing of the past.

MSY is one of many "disruptions" commercial trawler owners would need to face.

These owners need to invest in tracing equipment for their boats. They need to also comply with a stringent monitoring system and provide decent welfare for crews.

In short, they are required to do what they should have been doing in the first place.

So, the government needs to help trawler owners adjust to the future. The best strategy to deal with a highly destructive industry like this is to host dialogues, have patience and safeguard our future.

The government may need to provide financial assistance to help trawler owners procure new technology and give them a reasonable period to adjust.

It needs to apply the carrot and stick principle to make commercial fishing sustainable. And that is the only way to save the Thai seas.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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