Overfishing, pirate fishing and modern-day slavery in the Thai fishing industry must be addressed as interconnected issues. International demand for cheap seafood is fuelling a brutal trade in vulnerable people and the collapse of entire marine ecosystems. Aside from the devastating human cost and impact on wildlife, this issue compromises governance and economic sustainability in Thailand and across the region.
Thailand is the 3rd largest seafood exporter in the world, with exports valued at $7 billion in 2013. It is a leading supplier of seafood to the US yet a 2014 study estimates that up to 39% of wild-caught seafood entering the US market from Thailand has been caught illegally. A new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Pirates and Slaves, examines how overfishing and Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) or ‘pirate’ fishing have caused ecosystem decline in Thailand’s waters, generating pressures leading to the widespread use of slavery throughout the Thai fishing industry.
Rapid industrialisation of the Thai fishing fleet during the 20th Century resulted in too many vessels using destructive and unsustainable fishing methods to catch too many fish. The overall fish catch per unit of effort (CPUE) in both the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Seas has plummeted by more than 86% since 1966, making Thai waters one of the most over-fished regions on the planet. Boats now catch just 14% of what they caught in the mid-1960s and Thailand’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity are in crisis.
Depleted fish stocks have pushed vessel operators to target so-called ‘trash fish’ used in the production of shrimp feed – a significant proportion of which is made up of juveniles of commercially important species. This has accelerated the exhaustion of Thailand’s marine resources. Fishing vessels are forced to stay at sea for longer and go further afield than ever before in order to remain profitable.
As workers flee appalling conditions aboard the boats, catches decline and costs rise, vessel operators have resorted to using trafficked, bonded and forced labour to fill the shortfall and crew fishing boats. Thailand’s ‘ghost fleet’ of unregistered pirate fishing vessels also plunders the waters of other countries – where 40-50% of the fish landed in Thailand comes from – and fuels demand for the country’s thriving trade in modern-day slaves.
Since 2013, a series of reports and exposés by EJF, other civil society groups and the media have documented the systemic use of modern-day slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry, including child and forced labour, forced detention, extreme violence and murder. These reports culminated in the US Department of State downgrading Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking, in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The TIP Report stated that the Thai Government had demonstrated insufficient efforts to address trafficking, particularly as a result of its systematic failure to “investigate, prosecute, and convict ship owners and captains for extracting forced labor from migrant workers, or officials who may be complicit in these crimes.
EJF’s review of the Thai Government’s actions in the last year concludes that the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking have still not been met, and EJF strongly recommends that Thailand remains on Tier 3 in the 2015 TIP Report, as a clear signal to the Thai Government that a substantive programme of actions and series of reforms must be implemented.
Non-selective trawl fishing by pirate fishing vessels seriously threatens the integrity of marine ecosystems, reducing the topography of the seafloor to a smooth, flat, muddy surface. Thailand’s seagrass beds are a crucially important ecosystem for some 149 fish species as well as a feeding ground for several endangered species such as dugongs, several species of dolphin and sea turtles. Whale sharks, which are legally protected in Thailand, have also been reported as bycatch in trawl nets. Purse seiners, which despite being newly prohibited are still on the increase, use light lures to catch anchovies and squid. This fishing method is also extremely damaging to juvenile stocks of many economically important fish species and results in high proportions of by-catch.
Effective fisheries management in Thailand could help combat pirate fishing, halt biodiversity loss, enable ecosystems and fish stocks to recover, and bring an end to human trafficking and devastating human rights abuses. It would also increase revenue from the fishing industry in Thailand. Too many vessels plying the Gulf of Thailand’s waters leads to annual losses of potential revenue equating to £230 million. Reducing fishing capacity in the trawler fleet by just 30% would yield a net economic benefit of almost $1 billion and many of the costs during the transition could be alleviated by increasing licensing and registration fees to more realistic levels in a stronger business model.
EJF’s detailed report examines the complex and multi-faceted problems in Thailand’s fisheries sector and offers recommendations by which the Thai Government and producers, buyers, retailers and consumers of Thai seafood can tackle the root causes of the widespread environmental devastation and human rights abuses in the industry, and collectively secure truly sustainable, well-managed fisheries.
Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF, said:
“Producers and consumers of Thai seafood are embroiled in one of the most outrageous social and ecological crimes of the 21st Century. Ecosystem decline and slavery exist in a vicious cycle. People are trafficked as a result of environmental crises, and forced to endure terrible human rights abuses while working in industries which also harm the environment. Unrestricted industrial exploitation damages ecosystems and exposes vulnerable populations to trafficking and abuse. Overfishing exacerbates pirate fishing, which further drives slavery and environmental degradation.
It is vital to address overfishing, pirate fishing and slavery in Thailand as one fundamentally interconnected problem. The starting point must be an honest appraisal of the scale and extent of the social and environmental problems facing the Thai seafood industry. All stakeholders must work together to ensure the protection of the oceans and marine life, and eradication of slavery at sea.”
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Notes to editors
- Thailand is the 3rd largest seafood exporter in the world, with exports valued at $7.0 billion in 2013 (Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2014).
- The EU imported more than $1.15 billion (€835.5 million) worth of seafood from Thailand in 2012 (Eurostat, The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment (MARM), 2014).
- The value of seafood imported by the United States from Thailand exceeded $1.6 billion in 2013 (US National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics and Economics Division, 2013).
- The overall catch per unit of effort (CPUE) in both the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Seas has plummeted by more than 86% since 1966, making Thai waters among the most over-fished regions on the planet. (Thailand Department of Fisheries, 2008).
- To reduce overheads, boat operators perpetuate poor working conditions and low wages. This has led to a significant labour shortage – an estimated shortfall of 50,000 people (ILO, Employment Practices and Working Conditions in Thailand’s Fishing Sector, 2013).
- In 2014, the US Department of State downgraded Thailand to Tier 3 in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The TIP Report stated that the Thai Government had demonstrated insufficient efforts to address trafficking, particularly as a result of its systematic failure to “investigate, prosecute, and convict ship owners and captains for extracting forced labor from migrant workers, or officials who may be complicit in these crimes.” (United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, 2014).
- The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) is a UK-based non-profit organisation working internationally to protect the environment and defend human rights. EJF believes environmental security is a human right.
- EJF’s Oceans Campaign mission is to protect the marine environment, its biodiversity and the livelihoods dependent on it. The campaign aims to eradicate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) or ‘pirate’ fishing. We are working to create full transparency and traceability within seafood supply chains and markets. We actively promote improvements to policy-making, corporate governance, management of fisheries, consumer activism and market driven solutions.
- Our ambition is to secure truly sustainable, well-managed fisheries and with this the protection and effective conservation of marine biodiversity and ecosystems and the protection of human rights. EJF believes that there must be greater equity in global fisheries to ensure developing countries and vulnerable communities are given fair access and support to sustainably manage their natural resources and the right to work in the seafood industry without suffering labour and human rights abuses.