Fishing fleet fights for survival amid EU pressure

Date: September 25, 2017

Source: The Nation
Author: Pratch Rujivanarom

Raft of vessel improvements proving costly for boat owners.

New technology  and other improvements have been introduced in the Thai fishing fleet in an effort to get the nation removed from the European Union’s “watch list” for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

In the latest approach to shed the IUU “yellow card”, a satellite communication system, fishing vessel improvements and the introduction of onboard observers have been imposed on all fishing vessels that operate in international waters to enhance monitoring of fishing activities and improve supply chain transparency for seafood products.

However, the fisheries sector has meanwhile accused the EU of using the IUU ratings as a trade barrier. Industry operators have argued that adopting the new technology and other improvements was a cost that business owners could not bear and could lead to the collapse of the industry.

Since 2015, Thailand has been on the IUU watch list for its “unimproved fisheries industry”, which the EU claims is destroying marine resources and ecosystems, abusing workers aboard fishing boats, and failing to provide necessary facilities for workers.

The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre (SEAFDEC) was confronting those issues, said secretary-general, Khom Silpachan. The agency had taken an active role in helping the fisheries industry improve practices to pass IUU regulations, he added.

Khom said the SEAFDEC programme had created a sample design of a fishing vessel improved to meet the EU standards.

“We can say that most of the Thai fishing fleet does not meet the IUU standards, because almost all of the vessels are not equipped with necessary facilities for the crew onboard, such as a sleeping area, dining area and lavatory,” Khom said.

In response, the boat, christened the Pla Lang 1, was designed as a showcase, providing an example for fishermen to adapt for their own vessels to meet IUU health and safety standards.

Khom said boat owners did not need to improve their entire fleets at once or in the case of single-boat owners make all the corrections at one time, but could modify boats step by step to reduce the financial burden, he said.

To improve the transparency of fishing activities, the SEAFDEC has also trained onboard observers to monitor the catch and report to the Fisheries Department. Observers are supposed to make sure that fishermen use legal fishing equipment and catch only allowed types of fish.

“The observers will not only make sure that our fishing activities align with IUU standards, their information also will let us know about the fish populations in each area, so we can set the right fishing policies to ensure the sustainability of our marine resources,” Khom said.

Meanwhile, Inmarsat Plc, in cooperation with USAid and Thai Union Group, have spearheaded the installation of a satellite communications network on fishing vessels to boost the monitoring of fishing activities and improve the livelihoods of workers.

Inmarsat’s chief sales officer, Gerbrand Schalkwijk, said the communications network allowed fishing boats to communicate with officers onshore as well as with each other. Crews can also use the Internet while at sea.

The technology allows officers to monitor boat locations and receive real-time catch data.

“It will improve fishing standards as well as the livelihoods of the workers at sea,” Schalkwijk said, adding that four Thai Union fishing vessels had already been equipped with the communications equipment.

The technology, which is small and lightweight, has already been tested and adopted by many countries, including Indonesia and China. While the cost for the communications equipment has not been made public, Schalkwijk said price would decline as more units were sold.

However, the improvements were too expensive for Thai fishermen, said Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, chairman of the Thai Fisheries Association, who added that if fishermen were forced to embrace all of the upgrades, they would go bankrupt.

“It is a very high cost for us to implement all these measures to please the EU,” said Mongkol. “Picking only the cost of hiring an observer for each fishing vessel, it will cost the business owner Bt4,000 per day and Bt120,000 per month. “The cost of going to sea is already high nowadays. We cannot afford such a big expense.”

Numerous new fisheries rules have resulted in many Thai fishing vessels staying on shore, said Mongkol, adding that in practical terms, the nation’s fleet had already been barred from international waters because no operator could afford the additional costs required to meet the EU standards.

“We realise now this is all just a trade barrier by the EU, because all of the fishing vessels in Thailand are [following the law], but they still keep the yellow card for Thailand.”

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