The chairman of the Trang Fishing Association and seven others were arrested on human trafficking charges and three boats seized in predawn raids on land and at sea on Saturday.
Police arrested Sompol Jirotemontree, who also operates the Poka Sathaporn fish market business, and four others in Kantang district in the southern province at 4am. Three skippers were captured on the Andaman Sea about one hour later.
All of those arrested were the subjects of warrants issued earlier by the provincial court before authorities launched one of the largest operations yet to clamp down on human traffickers in Trang.
Police raided 11 targets in the district and captured Mr Sompol at his market, while four others, one of them the skipper of Poka Sathaporn 6 trawler, were arrested at their houses, also in Kantang.
Meanwhile, a 10-hour sea operation involving HTMS Klaeng from Phangnga province and marine police vessel 809 from Satun set off at 7pm on Thursday with officials from the Department of Special Investigation on board to find three fishing boats suspected of employing forced labourers from Myanmar.
Sompol Jirotemontree, chairman of the Trang Fishing Association, operates the Poka Sathaporn fish market in the province. (Photo by Methee Muangkaew)
They tracked the Wanich Pramong, Poka Sathaporn 19 and Poka Sathaporn 34 using the vessel monitoring system with ground support from the Royal Thai Navy radar station and finally found the trawlers in three separate locations, all about 60 nautical miles from Koh Libong in Kantang, at 5am Friday.
Authorities arrested the skippers of the three ships - Prawit Kimsai, Thaworn Chantharak and Khammee Pradasuk - and brought them back to shore in the district to hand them over to police.
Plans to crack down on human trafficking in the province were mapped out following the rescue on Oct 18 of forced labourers from Myanmar working on fishing boats, said Weerapong Chuenpakdi, commander of the Provincial Police Region 9.
Officials of the provincial office of the Labour and Social Development and Human Security ministries questioned the workers before sending them to the police to provide further details to target the suspects, other officials said. The Environmental Justice Foundation also conducted separated interviews with the victims.
Investigators subsequently collected enough evidence for the court to approve the warrants, Pol Maj Gen Weerapong said at a news conference on Saturday in Trang.
Vice Adm Sayan Prasongsamret, commander of the navy's Third Region, said the arrests were part of the government's campaign to crack down on human trafficking at sea and illegal fishing.
Thailand has been yellow-carded by the European Union, which has been pressing the country to deal with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing or face a seafood import ban. The United States has also been pressing the country to urgently address human trafficking and slavery in the fishery.
The cabinet this week approved a series of measures intended to tackle IUU fishing and manage marine resources in hopes that they would meet EU expectations.
A prominent businessman in the fishing industry in Trang, Mr Sompol was quoted on the Public Relations Department news website on May 11 as urging all trawler operators to end the use of illegal crew members and forced labour, so that Thailand could avoid sanctions.