MAHACHAI, Thailand, April 23 (Reuters) - Thai fisherman Wanlop Kuemfan says a year ago he would have had double the catch being offloaded at Mahachai, a bustling port town southwest of Bangkok, but it has been a tough year for the fishing industry and he fears it is about to get worse.
Thailand’s lucrative fishing sector has been tarnished by a barrage of negative publicity, ranging from allegations of overfishing to rights abuses of the thousands of migrant workers who crew its fleet.
Now, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter is rushing to beat the clock after the European Union gave the country six months to clamp down on illegal fishing.
Fishermen, ship owners and a senior trade body official all told Reuters the Thai industry would struggle to clean up its act by October, running the risk of an EU embargo on its fish exports if it does not crack down on “pirate” fishing.
At the Thalay Thai seafood market in Mahachai, where around 20 percent of produce ends up in the international market, Wiriya Sirichaiekawat, vice-chairman of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, said he was sceptical Thailand could register thousands of undocumented fishing boats in time.
“There are 2,000 boats in Thailand that have incorrect licenses,” he said. “It will be difficult for the government to get the boats registered within six months.”
The EU on Tuesday identified Thailand as a “non-cooperating” country due to poor monitoring and control of its fleet and the trade of fish and seafood from other countries into Thailand. That had led to unregulated fishing catch finding its way on to the EU market, the European Commission said.
Thailand’s annual exports to the EU are estimated to be worth between 575 million euros and 730 million euros ($620-$785 million).
Agriculture Minister Petipong Pungbun Na Ayudhya said on Wednesday he had confidence in measures designed to reverse Thailand’s shortcomings, including a vessel monitoring system.
But red tape will be one of the biggest challenges if Thailand wants to meet the EU’s deadline, said Wiriya. Educating fishermen about best practices is another.
“There’s too much paperwork to register a boat and to obtain a fishing licence,” said Wiriya. “We are recommending that the government has a centre in every province along the coast to minimise time wastage.”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Thailand would need to overhaul existing systems to fix the problems.
“We will undo the entire existing system in order to meet international standards,” said Prayuth.
Thailand’s fishing industry is already reeling from the effects of a crackdown on illegal fishing by Indonesia, which has caused disruption to its seafood supply chain since last year.
That, coupled with a labour shortage in the industry means some Thai fishermen feel they have no option but to employ illegal workers from neighbouring countries including Cambodia and Myanmar said fisherman Wanlop, as he inspected workers offloading bucketloads of inky squid, blue crabs and fish.
“Foreign workers now demand more than the national minimum wage of 300 baht ($9) a day prompting some ship owners to turn to illegal labour,” he said.
“Others just don’t want to work in the industry at all because of media reports of exploitation on Thai fishing boats.” ($1 = 32.4200 baht) ($1 = 0.9328 euros) (Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Simon Webb and Alex Richardson)