Thailand is waiting to hear if it has dodged a potentially crippling European Union ban on seafood exports, after auditors Friday (22 January) wrapped up a probe into illegal fishing.
Last year, the EU hit Thailand with a “yellow card,” warning it faced an outright ban unless the military government took action on illegal fishing and slave labour in the multi-billion dollar seafood industry.
Thai officials have said the ban could cost them up to $1 billion a year in lost exports.
An EU team has spent the last week assessing Thailand’s recent reforms but declined to comment on their findings, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
“Human trafficking is an issue they are really concerned about,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters after his final meeting with the EU team Friday.
“They only told us to do our best,” he added.
Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood, a status that environmental groups say is achieved through rampant overfishing and heavy reliance on forced labour by migrant workers.
A Thai government task force set up after the “yellow card” warning said the country had introduced new fisheries laws beefing up law enforcement, expanding monitoring systems, and assisting fishermen — including trafficking victims.
But the efficacy of the legislation has been threatened by resistance from small-scale fishermen, who say part of the decree favours large trawlers at the expense of local livelihoods.
“This law is extremely unequal,” said Sama-ae Jehmudor, 62, the president of a fishermen association in southern Thailand.
“We only sell enough fish to feed our families,” he told AFP.
Thailand’s fish stocks have plummeted in the past fifty years, according to the British NGO Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), and the kingdom’s waters are among the most overfished in the world.
Overfishing has pushed Thai fishing fleets further offshore, often to illegal areas, and encouraged the use of forced labour to boost profits, said EJF’s executive director, Steven Trent.
“They’ve fished out the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman sea… it’s no longer economical to operate in the region without this virtually free labour,” he told AFP.
He said Thailand’s new fishing laws indicate progress, but the key issue is enforcement. The country will likely avoid an all-out EU ban, he said, but should stay on the watch list.
“The yellow card needs to stay there for the moment,” he added.