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Coordinated Action needed to Address Interconnected Problems in Thai Fishing Industry

26 February 2015

THAILAND - A new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) examines how overfishing and Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) or ‘pirate’ fishing have caused ecosystem decline in Thailand’s waters, generating pressures leading to the widespread use of slavery throughout the Thai fishing industry.

Rapid industrialisation of the Thai fishing fleet during the 20th Century resulted in too many vessels using destructive and unsustainable fishing methods to catch too many fish.

The overall fish catch per unit of effort (CPUE) in both the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Seas has plummeted by more than 86 per cent since 1966, making Thai waters one of the most over-fished regions on the planet.

Boats now catch just 14 per cent of what they caught in the mid-1960s and Thailand’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity are in crisis. Depleted fish stocks have pushed vessel operators to target so-called ‘trash fish’ used in the production of shrimp feed – a significant proportion of which is made up of juveniles of commercially important species.

This has accelerated the exhaustion of Thailand’s marine resources. Fishing vessels are forced to stay at sea for longer and go further afield than ever before in order to remain profitable. As workers flee appalling conditions aboard the boats, catches decline and costs rise, vessel operators have resorted to using trafficked, bonded and forced labour to fill the shortfall and crew fishing boats.

Thailand’s ‘ghost fleet’ of unregistered pirate fishing vessels also plunders the waters of other countries – where 40-50 per cent of the fish landed in Thailand comes from – and fuels demand for the country’s thriving trade in modern-day slaves.

Since 2013, a series of reports and exposés by EJF, other civil society groups and the media have documented the systemic use of modern-day slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry, including child and forced labour, forced detention, extreme violence and murder.

These reports culminated in the US Department of State downgrading Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking, in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The TIP Report stated that the Thai Government had demonstrated insufficient efforts to address trafficking, particularly as a result of its systematic failure to “investigate, prosecute, and convict ship owners and captains for extracting forced labor from migrant workers, or officials who may be complicit in these crimes.”

EJF’s review of the Thai Government’s actions in the last year concludes that the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking have still not been met, and EJF strongly recommends that Thailand remains on Tier 3 in the 2015 TIP Report, as a clear signal to the Thai Government that a substantive programme of actions and series of reforms must be implemented.

Non-selective trawl fishing by pirate fishing vessels seriously threatens the integrity of marine ecosystems, reducing the topography of the seafloor to a smooth, flat, muddy surface.

Thailand’s seagrass beds are a crucially important ecosystem for some 149 fish species as well as a feeding ground for several endangered species such as dugongs, several species of dolphin and sea turtles. Whale sharks, which are legally protected in Thailand, have also been reported as bycatch in trawl nets. Purse seiners, which despite being newly prohibited are still on the increase, use light lures to catch anchovies and squid.

Effective fisheries management in Thailand could help combat pirate fishing, halt biodiversity loss, enable ecosystems and fish stocks to recover, and bring an end to human trafficking and devastating human rights abuses.

It would also increase revenue from the fishing industry in Thailand. Too many vessels plying the Gulf of Thailand’s waters leads to annual losses of potential revenue equating to £230 million. Reducing fishing capacity in the trawler fleet by just 30 per cent would yield a net economic benefit of almost $1 billion and many of the costs during the transition could be alleviated by increasing licensing and registration fees to more realistic levels in a stronger business model.

EJF’s detailed report examines the complex and multi-faceted problems in Thailand’s fisheries sector and offers recommendations by which the Thai Government and producers, buyers, retailers and consumers of Thai seafood can tackle the root causes of the widespread environmental devastation and human rights abuses in the industry, and collectively secure truly sustainable, well-managed fisheries.

Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF, said: “Producers and consumers of Thai seafood are embroiled in one of the most outrageous social and ecological crimes of the 21st Century. Ecosystem decline and slavery exist in a vicious cycle.

People are trafficked as a result of environmental crises, and forced to endure terrible human rights abuses while working in industries which also harm the environment. Unrestricted industrial exploitation damages ecosystems and exposes vulnerable populations to trafficking and abuse.

Overfishing exacerbates pirate fishing, which further drives slavery and environmental degradation. "It is vital to address overfishing, pirate fishing and slavery in Thailand as one fundamentally interconnected problem.

The starting point must be an honest appraisal of the scale and extent of the social and environmental problems facing the Thai seafood industry. All stakeholders must work together to ensure the protection of the oceans and marine life, and eradication of slavery at sea.”

Pirates and Slaves from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

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