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E.U. Lifts Thailand's “Yellow Card” but Concerns Remain

Credit: EJF
Credit: EJF

By The Maritime Executive 2019-01-08 18:44:45

The European Commission has announced that it will be lifting the “yellow card” it placed on Thailand’s seafood industry. However, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) warns that while there has been significant progress, important gaps remain.

The commission’s yellow card is a formal warning for the fishing industry that can lead to import bans to the E.U. This is a serious issue in Thailand where seafood exports run to millions of tons. In 2016, these exports were worth $ 5.8 billion. 

There are an estimated 4.5 million migrant workers in Thailand with 222,000 workers in the seafood processing sector and approximately 129,000 workers on board fishing vessels. These workers represent a significant portion of Thailand’s workforce and are operating in one of the most dangerous professions in the world yet are still not granted the same rights as Thai domestic workers.

Thailand has a fleet of approximately 11,000 commercial fishing vessels. Catch per unit effort – a measure of how productive or depleted a fishery is – dropped by 94 percent in the Gulf of Thailand between 1961 and 2016 and by 69 percent in the Andaman Sea between 1966 and 2016.

The EJF has worked closely with the Thai Government since 2015 on tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The organization notes that there have been significant and substantial improvements in Thailand’s monitoring, surveillance, and enforcement capabilities. On-the-ground investigations have shown good progress, including innovative efforts such as the use of covert patrol vessels to combat non-compliance among vessel operators and intercept illegal fishing boats.

In addition, Thailand has shown important regional leadership in moving to become the first country in Asia to ratify the Work in Fishing Convention, which sets basic standards of decent work in the fishing industry. Ratification of the convention is planned at the end of January.

However, EJF has also found lingering shortcomings that prevent Thailand’s fishing industry from becoming truly ethical and sustainable. Addressing the over-capacity of the Thai fishing fleet is paramount to stabilizing fish stocks, and EJF commends recent progress in identifying fishing vessels that could be phased out. However, it says that it is crucial that the government commits to a time-bound vessel decommissioning program.

The “Port in Port out” (PIPO) network has the potential to be a powerful tool to combat both illegal fishing and associated labor abuses, as it means that all fishing vessels above 30 gross tons must report to their local PIPO center before and after every fishing trip for inspections by the authorities. Thailand’s PIPO network includes 32 centers across Thailand’s 22 coastal provinces. There are a further 19 Forward Inspection Points which help share the workload of the main PIPO centers.

However, EJF has observed some worrying shortcomings in the inspections, such as failure to provide translators for migrant crew, meaning they may be unable to give effective evidence in interviews.

Without the threat of sanctions from the E.U., strong political will is needed to entrench the positive progress already made and ensure its long-term success, says Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF. This would help establish the country as a regional and international leader in ethical seafood production. 

“EJF also praises the outstanding leadership of the European Commission in combating illegal fishing in Thailand and across the world,” says Trent. “Without the extensive, bold and progressive efforts initiated by the E.U. Commission and a small dedicated team there, much and possibly most of the progress we have seen in addressing highly damaging illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing would not have been realized. Europe can be rightly proud of the leadership it has shown.”