Thailand has undertaken an unprecedented overhaul of its regulatory framework, as well as its prevention and enforcement infrastructure relating to fisheries, in order to outlaw and eliminate illegal fishing. Thailand has undertaken an unprecedented overhaul of its regulatory framework, as well as its prevention and enforcement infrastructure relating to fisheries, in order to outlaw and eliminate illegal fishing.
From an almost standing start in 2015, the Thai government took fisheries rules that had been in place since 1947 and has now introduced tough new legislation that fundamentally changes its citizens’ relationship with the seas, from ‘free-for-all’ access to one that fairly balances economic needs with the sustainability of marine life. As a result of these measures, there has been a radical reduction in illegal fishing in the country’s waters and by its fleet.
It is an approach that may yet prove a template for other countries in the region.
Its approach is focused on conservation, as part of a Fisheries Management Plan that uses estimates of the maximum sustainable yield to manage total catch, while also taking into account factors including juvenile catches and critical fish habitats, such as mangroves, sea grasses and coral reefs. The tough new rules also include control on equipment with high-catch capacity and a prohibition against various destructive fishing methods.
As a demonstration of how serious the state is, during the spawning season it has implemented a temporary ban on any commercial fishing across the entire Gulf of Thailand, the shallow and broad basin surrounded by the country’s 1,660 kilometers of coastline, west of the South China Sea that historically has accounted for around 40% of Thailand’s total catch.
Fleet on a sheet
The government’s main lever in the fight against illegal fishing is effective fleet management. To this end, it has introduced stringent monitoring of vessels into and out of ports, and dockyards must seek authorization before building a new vessel, repairing or scrapping of an existing one. The authorities have also introduced an incentive buyback scheme to remove and decommission unlicensed vessels.
So far, the initiative has proven extremely effective. Since 2015, there were around 49,000 commercial fishing vessels in operation. Following five rounds of fleet inspections and control, there are now just 19,424 vessels in operation, all of which are fully licensed, plus a number of vessels that have been impounded.
To ensure no leakage back into the system, the government has suspended new registrations for two years. Once a fifth round of inspections is complete, authorities expect to have high visibility of the total fleet inventory in Thai waters and of Thai vessels in foreign waters.
Managing such large and diffuse assets is a technical challenge, and electronic reporting and monitoring systems must be fitted to all vessels operating outside Thai waters. This is part of the new regulation on overseas fishing, drafted in close consultation with European Union representatives, Europe being a significant export market for Thai fish.
In addition, in September Thailand became one of the first countries in the region to introduce a full ‘whitelist’ of all registered and licensed fishing vessels, a ‘watchlist’ of vessels that have been banned from fishing and a permanent lost vessels list that ensures no unregistered vessels will be able to re-enter into the system. The Environmental Justice Foundation highlighted positive progress and has called on all countries to follow Thailand’s lead and publish information on license vessels as transparency is the cornerstone in the fight against the illegal fishing and for the sustainable, legal and ethical fisheries.
Technologies to trace the origins of marine life caught both within and outside of Thai waters are also being adopted. This ensures that no illegally caught marine life can enter the Thai production chain.
Thailand is home to one of the largest seafood processing industries in the world. Its seafood export business is the world’s third largest, at around 7 billion US Dollars (6 billion Euros) per year.
Policing the waters
Tightening rules is one thing, but enforcement over such large expanses of water is another, and requires a combination of technology, manpower and administrative resources.
The control centre for policing the rules, the Fisheries Monitoring Centre, is an integrated unit of police, fishery and marine department officers. It includes a ‘Flying Inspection Team’ and five ‘Special Arrest Teams’ in order to speed up the arrest of offenders at sea, as well as further air surveillance by drones and undercover sea patrols.
Meanwhile, special units within the Attorney General’s Office and the Criminal Courts for prosecuting and expediting law suits have seen more than 4,400 cases of illegal fishing or fishing-related human-trafficking, including sentences for six overseas vessels resulting in a fine of approximately 14 million US Dollars (12 million Euros).
Perhaps as important as these tangible measures is a demonstrable shift in mindset towards sustainability and an awareness of the need to protect one of the country’s most valuable resources. It is a cultural shift that has taken place at extraordinary speed across the police, navy, judiciary and broader public.
Such bold efforts may well serve both as a regional model and a landmark in the fight against illegal fishing.
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