The European Commission has officially warned Bangkok about dragging its feet in combatting illegal fishing, and the horrifying work conditions in the fisheries sector. Now an EU import ban on Thai fish products looms on the horizon. EURACTIV Germany reports.
After a year of inactivity regarding the issue, officials in Brussels have noticed the first signs of reform from the military government in Thailand.
But scepticism remains high. In the coming weeks the Commission could issue Thailand with a red card, confirming that its efforts in combatting the illegal activity have been insufficient. This could lead to an EU embargo on Thai seafood products.
In April, the Commission issued a “yellow card” to Bangkok. After “detailed analysis”, the Commission warned that flaws in the monitoring, control and sanctioning systems relating to fisheries had led it to conclude that Thailand is not doing enough.
At the start of October, the Commission will decide on the next round of cards to be issued regarding illegal fishing, officials told euractiv.de on Thursday (17 September). A specific date has not been set.
“Europe must show how determined it is against illegal fishing, to this end, signing up to the fisheries reform was for the right reasons,” MEP Ulrike Rodust (SPD) told euractiv.de. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing will eventually cause significant damage, she believes.
“Consistent action against states that do not tackle illegal fishing promotes fairness: not only vis-à-vis domestic fishermen and producers that need to abide by the rules, but also against other countries that would gain an unfair advantage on the significantly important European market,” Rodust said.
Testimonials from survivors and human rights organisations reveal the appalling conditions and practices in the Thai fishing industry. These include slave labour and the exploitation of thousands of displaced Rohingya refugees.
“The working conditions on fishing boats are abysmal and akin to modern day slavery,” SPD politician Dirk Wiese told euractiv.de. “They are intolerable conditions, the workers receive no protection. In many cases they are the victims of trafficking.”
According to Wiese, signs from both Europe and the USA suggest that the time is right to call for reform. “Sanctions and threat of action are something that Thailand would take seriously,” he said.
One of the reasons that the EU has focused on Thailand is the awful conditions on the boats, explained Catherine Zucco, a marine fisheries expert at WWF. “Illegal fishing and human rights violations are closely linked,” she told euractiv.de. “Unfortunately, the illegal fishing regulation (IUU) does not include the issue of human rights violations. In this respect, the issue must be politically resolved.”
Thai government steps up efforts
Meanwhile, Thai authorities have ostensibly sought to defuse the crisis. In the last week, Thailand’s agriculture minister Chatchai Sarikalya called the EU’s “yellow card” a catalyst for reforming the country’s fisheries policy. He said the government was fully committed to meet international obligations on combatting illegal fishing, protecting human rights and stopping trafficking.
In fact, Thailand has responded to the EU’s warning, Wiese observed. “The legal framework has been adapted and raids have been made against fishing boats. The registration process of vessels has been strengthened in particular,” the German MEP said.
But Ulrike Rodust believes that the Thai government should make a greater effort to document what actual steps it is taking against illegal fishing. This could include, for example, meetings between Thai institutions and scientists. “However, I find it difficult to judge what the actual implications and consequences of these meetings are.”
CDU politician Jürgen Klimke also believes the Commission’s yellow card has initiated action at a local level.
“Thailand’s military government has in the meantime implemented various mechanisms, such as changing the legal framework, stepping up its efforts against people-trafficking and fitting fishing boats with tracking devices, in an attempt to tackle the problem,” Klimke told euractiv.de.
“Tackling illegal fishing in Thailand is on the agenda,” he said, adding “it was clear during my visit to the country last April that this was the case”.
Frank Heinrich, another CDU politician, also believes that the EU’s message is hitting home in Thailand. “The yellow card has already had an effect, but has also been met with misunderstanding.”
Although he does not trust the Thai government’s motivation, he is convinced that they want to do away with their poor reputation. “Personally, it’s the results that are important,” Heinrich told euractiv.de.
Increased efforts are needed to fight human rights violations, appalling working conditions and people-trafficking, said Wiese. “It is hoped that the Thai government will intervene more effectively and that, for example, trade unions will come out on top.”
According to Rodust, sending the right message to Thailand is the real challenge. “On the one hand, it is important that we make it clear that Thailand’s efforts so far have been noted and appreciated. But it must also be emphasised that this has to be continued, effectively and on a consistent basis.”
To what extent Thailand has actually implemented sweeping reforms is still not clear at the moment, said Zucco.”There are certainly positive signs. Ultimately, the EU will have to decide whether the measures they have implemented have been effective.”
If no tangible progress can be seen in the long run, the EU could envisage giving Thailand a “red card”, leading to a trade ban on fishery products.
But such a decision would have to the taken by the 28 EU member states in the Council, where consensus decision-making is the tacit rule.
“Such an outcome would be based on the negative economic impact caused by the third country, this is, of course, not desirable,” Zucco explained.
The marine fisheries expert concluded that consistent enforcement of EU-instigated improvements to the fishing sector and fighting illegal fishing are vital to combat depleting fish stocks.
“Should the measures that the EU has drawn up for Thailand not be implemented sufficiently, the EU should take action consistently and impose appropriate sanctions, or at least not repeal the warnings that have been issued whilst the measures are being implemented on a short time scale.”