A few locals in Phuket gave me their views on the fishing vessel lockdown, in place following the moratorium imposed by the Ministry of Fisheries. This and other measures that the Thai fishing industry has had to implement have been largely prompted by an official warning by the European Union issued to Thailand on the 21st of April 2015. The warning or ‘yellow card’ was issued on multiple, and serious, grounds involving a number of failures in the exercise of public authority by Thailand, in its capacity as flag State as well as coastal State.
The warning had followed several visits, discussions and formal written exchanges between the Thai government and the European Commission. The latter publicly indicated serious concerns over Thailand’s record as a flag State, including its existing legal regime and administrative exercise of regulatory powers in respect of fleet control, monitoring and sanctioning. Issues flagged in the Commission’s Decision include the recurrent identification of Thai IUU fishing vessels and trade flows, unauthorised fishing activities by Thai vessels in the high seas and in coastal State waters, and the failure by Thai vessels to carry operative VMS on board in high seas areas and in the exclusive economic zones of coastal States that require it.
Additionally, a poor and antiquated monitoring regime had enabled Thai vessel operators to feed false information to Thai, regional and European authorities concerning catches, areas of operation and vessel identity. The Decision went on to highlight that infractions had been insufficiently acted upon by authorities, and sanctioning had been found to be either non-existent or inadequate. The Commission also indicated that Thailand may have been in breach of its flag State obligations under Article 94(2)(b) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
As a coastal State, Thailand was found to have allowed the fish stocks in waters under its jurisdiction to endure a vast degree of overfishing leading to sharp decline. It is believed, according to the Decision, that over 95% of catches (including those of the artisanal fleet) may have gone unreported. The management of Thai jurisdictional waters would therefore be far from being carried out at optimum levels for sustainability, and this is coupled with endemic fishing vessel registration practices that are not only highly deficient, but marred by tensions and contradictory data held by different departments. In addition, fish stock exhaustion due to overfishing encouraged more of the local vessels to harvest what they can by whatever means, including the illegal and destructive.
By the time of my visit, the Thai fishing industry’s image and reputation had been severely tarnished by the uncovering by NGOs of extensive networks of migrant smuggling from neighbouring, impoverished countries. Ensuing reports have highlighted the human tragedies behind the poorly controlled growth of the industry.
Thailand is a regional powerhouse in seafood production and processing, with exports thought to be in the region of €6Bn. These industries are hungry for workers, frequently supplied by impoverished neighbouring countries. According to now widely reported investigations, immigrants have been lured under false promises of a better life, but once embarked and at sea their fates often depend exclusively on luck and resilience. Deficient technical and legal controls and police indifference or even collusion in ports and borders, alongside toxic economic drivers, have respectively enabled and rewarded the exploitation and abuse of people, and the ruin of the marine environment and the living resources it contains.
The moratorium on fishing vessels is seen by the locals I spoke to as a necessary evil, despite vocal opposition from some quarters in the fishing and tourism industries. There have been exceptions to the moratorium: Small cephalopod vessels are operating at night, easily identifiable due to their bright lights, seeking to emulate the full moon on a daily basis along the southernmost coast of the Phuket island.
The moratorium appeared to been largely respected at the time of writing, although there were rumours of unregistered illegal boats still at sea, and the issue of registration of these unaccountable fleets has been fraught with difficulties, controversies and delays. There is also a concern that the new VMS control tools will be unable to monitor the illegals, and that unless the local fishermen are prepared to report the illegal activity of others to the authorities, many will go undetected. Finally, the junta has prepared rules for the application of punishing fines on those who operate illegally, with the focus now turned on whether monitoring measures will be sufficient to enable the identification and arrest of those who break the newly implemented measures.With many of these fishermen on the bread line, this goes beyond being a conservation issue, affecting the social fabric of many communities as well their immediate and long term futures. There are no easy solutions here.
A related problem is the inability to prove illegal fishing offences in maritime areas with poor delimitation, an issue that continues to mar the wider region and shows few signs of relenting.
Yet, amongst all the uncertainty, there is a small amount of positivity. There have been reports of recovery in the biodiversity of the area since the implementation of the moratorium. Although such localised reports are not in any way akin to a scientific nod on biomass recovery, the fact that observable changes are being reported after only a short time of restraint is seen as positive news. Here is hoping that this small sign of recovery may provide some much needed encouragement for the long journey to sustainability that lies ahead.
Mercedes Rosello, August 2015
Sources & Links:
European Commission Decision of 21 April 2015: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.C_.2015.142.01.0007.01.ENG
Thai Fishing Roadmap: http://www.thaigov.go.th/index.php/en/issues/item/91850-91850.html
Thailand’s reported seafood exports: http://news.thaivisa.com/thailand/thai-fishery-sector-hopeful-of-smoother-waters-ahead-after-strenuous-attempts-to-get-house-in-order/127031/
UNODC Report on Organised Transnational Crime in the Fishing Industry: http://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/Issue_Paper_-_TOC_in_the_Fishing_Industry.pdf