Revoke the licence to kill our oceans

Revoke the licence to kill our oceans

Authorities inspect a fishing trawler in Samut Prakan as they look for ways to improve fishing practices. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul
Authorities inspect a fishing trawler in Samut Prakan as they look for ways to improve fishing practices. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

Despite efforts to rein in rogue trawlers and overfishing in the past decade, the Thai seas are still in crisis. And if the Srettha government has its way, things will go from bad to worse.

In fact, the Thai seas will face a catastrophe.

The Srettha administration is amending the fishery law to bring back environmentally-destructive fishing by rolling back rules and regulations to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Under the amendment bill, commercial fishing boats under 10 gross tonnes, formerly operating as trawlers, will now be permitted to register as small-scale, traditional fishermen and operate in coastal waters.

Additionally, hundreds of trawlers that were outlawed from IUU fishing will be allowed back into the seas.

Making matters worse, the use of fine mesh nets will no longer be banned. This lethal combination of trawlers with fine mesh nets freely roaming the coastal seas spells catastrophe for the country's environment, marine resources, traditional fishermen's livelihoods, consumers and the economy.

Moreover, the bill would reduce the size of protected coastal seas, allowing destructive fishing vessels to roam more freely near the shores. Furthermore, it would drastically reduce punitive measures, eliminating jail sentences and minimum fines, axeing vessel confiscation, leaving violators virtually unpunished.

In short, the amendment is a licence to destroy Thailand's seas.

Trawlers and their destructive bottom trawling indiscriminately scoop up marine life of all sizes and crush the seabed and their habitats. While the trawler industry thrives, the marine ecosystem collapses. Millions of traditional fishermen who practice sustainable fishing suffer due to dwindling catch in the sea while consumers face much higher prices for seafood.

Thailand has experienced this tragedy before. And it will occur again if the fishery law is amended to bring back destructive trawlers to the Thai seas.

Recognising the impending dangers, the Environmental Justice Foundation Thailand, along with over 80 civic groups and organisations, called upon Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to rethink the amendment, prioritising sustainable fishing over short-term profits.

The Federation of Thai Fisherfolks Association, representing millions of fisherfolk in 22 coastal provinces, also demanded a halt to the pro-trawler legislation, believing it would destroy rather than protect the sea.

"We're willing to give our lives to safeguard our seas," said fisherfolk community leader Sulaiman Dara-oh. "This effort to change the law to support trawlers must stop."

It is disconcerting that the government dismisses the ravages which trawlers have wrought on the seas. Due to destructive trawlers, the catch per hour between 1966 to 2017 fell by 88%, according to a study by the Department of Fisheries.

Another study shows that only 28% of fish caught by trawlers had economic value. The rest were small, young fish, scooped up by fine mesh nets and sold cheaply as "trash fish" to the animal feed industry.

If allowed to grow fully through sustainable fishing, their catch would have much higher economic value. For example, one kilogramme of young mackerel now costs about 100 baht. Within six months, the fully grown mackerel will catch over 80-fold, says Banjong Nasae, veteran marine conservationist.

"The sea, now in recovery, will be destroyed right before our eyes. Precious baby fish will be scooped up as trash fish again to feed animals, not people.

"The sea destruction will be much worse than before because destructive fishing will become legal," he predicted.

Before 2015, the fisherfolk movement was at the forefront of the fight against trawlers. However, the struggles, some deadly, produced little change, thanks to trawlers' big money and power over officials and politicians.

It was not until Thailand was slapped with the "yellow card" from the European Union (EU) that things started to move.

The 2015 Royal Ordinance on Fisheries was put in place to deal with destructive fishing and human trafficking following the EU's threat to ban Thai seafood in 2015 and the US Department of State's downgrading Thailand to Tier 3, the worst ranking in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, in 2014.

The measures include outlawing illegal vessels, digitising crew databases, establishing vessel monitoring and surveillance technologies and enhancing transparency and accountability across the fishing industry.

The work was fruitful. In 2019, the EU removed the "yellow card" threat of a trade ban, and Thailand's human trafficking ranking moved up to Tier 2. The Thai seas, once swept clean by trawlers, are starting to show signs of recovery.

The fishing industry was furious. Hundreds of their illegal trawlers were outlawed. They also have to comply with new rules to inform departures, arrivals, lists of workers and limits on time spent at sea to prevent overfishing and labour abuse.

Their opportunity to dismantle the fishery law came in the last general election.

Since the 2015 fishery law was issued by the military junta, the powerful fishing industry has lobbied hard with anti-junta political parties to change the law in their favour.

It succeeded. Even the progressive Move Forward Party, which has billed itself as environmentally-conscious, has set aside sustainable fishing to win the election in the provinces dominated by the fishing industry, promising to amend the fishery law in their favour to boost seafood exports.

"Thailand risks facing the same seafood ban threat, however, if the new law enables the fishing industry to go back to the old days of destructive fishing," warned Mr Banjong.

The bill to water down fishing regulations is currently under review by a House committee. Its decision to scrap state support for traditional fishermen and their sustainable fishing practices is a clear sign of what is to come.

The Environment Justice Foundation also points out how rolling back regulations will reignite human trafficking and labour abuse in the fishing sector.

It includes enabling trawlers to leave the docks without a complete crew list, facilitating the transfer of workers and the seafood catch from one vessel to another at sea and increasing the permitted number of fishing days from 30 to 45, and 60 days.

The bill also proposes removing the requirement for trawler operators to record in logbooks where they fish when the satellite system is unavailable, making it easy for them to fish illegally in protected areas.

These measures will intensify overfishing and increase the likelihood of crew exploitation. Eliminating the electronic payment system for fishers will also reduce transparency and accountability for trawler owners, said EJF Thailand.

Furthermore, when combined with the Ministry of Labour permitting "apprenticeships" for teenagers in fishing boats, the seafood industry is likely to face global condemnation on child labour, undermining the government's aspirations to increase seafood export earnings.

"We're not against amending fishing rules and regulations. But they should strengthen sustainable fishing, not speed up sea destruction by legalising illegal fishing," said Mr Sulaiman.

The fisherfolk movement has petitioned the House of Representatives to halt the legislation that would approve destructive fishing practices.

The destruction of the sea won't affect only traditional fishing communities. An empty sea affects food security and, equally importantly, the seas and oceans are Earth's biggest carbon sink.

Destroying ocean health aggravates the climate crisis and hurts everyone.

"The sea belongs to all of us, not just up for the fishing industry to exploit at will," said Mr Sulaiman, not ruling out street protests.

"We must stop this destructive law. We must fight to save our sea."

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes about human rights, gender and Thai Buddhism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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