EU team visits Thailand to assess fishing industry cleanup

Thailand's lucrative fishing industry is still wracked by human rights abuses and financial wrongdoing, say activists. [linovoyage/Flickr]

A European Union delegation that is visiting Thailand to weigh its progress in battling illegal and unregulated fishing will not make a decision this week on whether to ban Thai seafood products, the government in Bangkok said on Tuesday (19 January). 

Thailand, the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood, faces the risk of the ban after the European Union gave it a ‘yellow card’ in April 2015 for failing to clamp down on problems in its fishing industry.

An EU dialogue mission to assess progress is set for Thursday and Friday (21-22 January), but a technical team has already arrived, the government said.

The team is monitoring Thailand’s progress after it set up a centre last year to combat illegal fishing, said Vice Admiral Jumpol Lumpiganon, a spokesman for the Royal Thai Navy.

“Once they are satisfied they will go back and make a decision,” he said, adding that there was no timeframe for the decision. The technical team would conduct random checks until the rest of the EU officials arrived on Wednesday (20 January), he said.

>>Read: Thai junta promises illegal fishing crackdown ahead of EU ban decision

Last week, the government said Thailand had completed “70 percent of the task” set out by the EU, after having registered most of its fishing vessels and caught groups suspected of human trafficking in the fishing sector.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said Thailand had introduced new laws to avert an EU ban.

“There has been huge progress, because we have solved many problems in terms of the law, and its application,” he told reporters. “Whether they are satisfied or not we will have to see, we’ve done our utmost.”

The EU declined comment, citing the confidential nature of meetings between its officials and Thai authorities. But previously an EU spokeswoman has told EURACTIV that, “Meetings with and visits to third countries are always of technical nature. They are also part of a wider process that seeks to clarify the situation and to engage in a dialogue with the relevant authorities. 

“After the mission, the Commission will assess the next steps. The current state of play remains: After issuing Thailand with a yellow card warning in April 2015, the Commission continues its cooperation with Thai authorities. The Commission has regular contacts with Thailand, including technical missions to review situation. The yellow card warning remains in place.

Thailand is the world’s third-largest fish exporter, and in 2014 its exports of fish to the EU stood at 3 billion dollars, according to the Thai Frozen Foods Association.

The military regime – which took power in a military coup in May 2014 – is facing a possible total EU import ban for repeated floughting of the Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) rules imposed by Brussels.

In his New Year’s address, the country’s military leader, General Prayut Chan-ocha, had pledged a string of last-minute reforms to avoid a crippling blow to one of the country’s key export industries.

Prayut conceded that his country “must admit the faults that have existed for a long time, ” and he went on to demand weekly progress reports delivered to himself personally, and to step up checks on licences and focus more on research and development.

He said, “We especially need to focus on sustainable development in the fishing industry as well as prevent and tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU).

“All documents concerning imports and exports of seafood products will be thoroughly scanned as well as other documents such as fishing licenses.

“These documents will also need to be verified. We will emphasize on R&D, marine resources assessment, and marine resources management.”

The junta is currently under a ‘yellow card’ from Brussels – meaning its progress on fighting abuses of fish stocks and supplies is under review. The decision on a ‘red card’ which would ban all Thai fish imports, is expected soon.

Four other countries – Cambodia, Guinea, Belize and Sri Lanka – have been handed out ‘red cards’ implanting EU import bans. Belize was later downgraded.

Comoros and Taiwan have recently been put on the ‘yellow card’ notification, whilst Ghana and Papua New Guinea were taken off it.

A ‘red card’, threatening the billions of income to one of Thailand’s biggest export industries, would gravely damage the standing of the military regime, which is attempting to write a new constitution, in a lengthy process which it promises will see a return to democracy some point in 2017.

>>Read: ‘Zero chance’ of Thailand FTA under junta, Commission official says

Thailand, which was in advanced negotiations to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, has been warned that such an FTA will not be signed whilst the junta is in power, under Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s new 2015 ‘Trade for All’ policy of having labour and resource abuses taken into account.

EURACTIV revealed in November that such an FTA would “never” be passed by the European Parliament, due to the regime’s perceived treatment of labour rights, resource management and attacks on the media.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the Thai military deposed the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.

The government has promised a lengthy process of constitution-drafting before any return to elections in 2017 at the earliest.

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