EU warning to Thailand to tackle pirate fishing or risk trade sanctions
Apr 21, 2015

EU warning to Thailand to tackle pirate fishing or risk trade sanctions

By EJF Staff

The European Commission today issued a warning or ‘yellow card’ to Thailand, the third largest seafood exporter in the world, for failure to combat Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) or ‘pirate’ fishing which damages marine environments and threatens human rights.

In 2013 the European Union (EU) imported €736 million worth of seafood caught by Thai vessels or processed in Thai factories. Thailand’s global seafood exports were valued at US$7 billion. If the Thai Government does not show improvement in combating pirate fishing in the next six months, a ‘red card’ could follow which would result in trade sanctions preventing Thailand from exporting fish caught by Thai vessels to the EU and EU vessels from fishing in Thai waters. A red card would have both significant economic and reputational impacts on Thailand and its seafood industry.

The European Commission’s decision to ‘yellow-card’ Thailand, informed by the EU IUU Regulation, (Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008), aims to deter pirate fishing by denying non-cooperating countries access to the world’s most valuable seafood market. The legislation, introduced in 2010, allows fish to be seized in European ports, poor performing flag States and illegal vessels to be sanctioned, and coastal States to be encouraged to protect their marine resources.

Thailand’s fisheries:

  • A 2014 study estimates that up to 39% of wild-caught seafood entering the US market from Thailand has been caught illegally.
  • Thailand’s legal and regulatory framework governing fisheries and fishing practices was mostly established in 1947. It is outdated and does not reflect the current status of either industry practices or marine resources. A new Thai Fisheries Act, due to come into force in July 2015, aims to redress current regulatory deficiencies and impose harsher penalties for violations of fisheries regulations.
  • In January 2015, Thailand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives announced a Six Point Plan to combat IUU fishing. Robust and effective implementation of these measures will be essential to avoid a future red card from the EU.
  • A high proportion of the Thai fishing fleet is unregistered and therefore outside Government control. Even registered vessels often operate without robust catch documentation and certification. Paper-based systems for vessel logbooks, marine catch documents and captain’s statements lead to systemic fraud and misreporting.
  • 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. Boats now catch just 14% of what they caught in the mid-1960s.
  • Since the 1960s Thailand’s exhausted fish stocks have pushed vessel operators abroad and a ‘ghost fleet’ of unregistered pirate fishing vessels plunders the waters of other countries, often assuming the identity of other fishing vessels which are registered and licensed.
  • 40-50% of the fish landed in Thailand comes from outside the Thai EEZ – mostly from Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam – some from as far as East Africa.
  • In recent official documents, the Thai Government claimed there are 300 fishing vessels and 98 cargo vessels in Thailand’s distant water fleet but the Deputy Director-General of the Department of Fisheries acknowledges that the true number of vessels is closer to 2,000.
  • IUU catches in the Asia-Pacific are estimated at 3.4 to 8.1 million tonnes every year – costing countries in the region of US$2.5 billion in 2007.
  • Indonesia estimates that the activities of more than 3,000 Thai pirate fishing vessels lose the country between US$1.2 billion and US$2.4 billion every year in the value of stolen marine fish, tax revenues and licensing fees.
  • 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.
“[IUU fishing] is considered as a serious threat to the sustainable development of fish stocks and marine resources and impacts Thailand’s trade in fisheries products.” - Pitipong Phuengboon na Ayudhaya, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives
“If you have 10 boats, you buy a licence for just two or three boats. Then you’ll have two boats with the same name, and two with no name… If they get stopped, they have a licence to show the authorities, but really it’s a fake licence.” - Senior officer in the Thai marine police (interviewed by the Guardian)
“The registered vessels spread out in advance of the ghost ships and radio through to tell them to retreat when the authorities come. We Thais are clever.” - Thai former fishing boat captain (interviewed by EJF)

Since 2012 the EU has warned, or ‘yellow-carded’ 18 countries. In 2014 three countries that had previously been ‘yellow-carded’ - Guinea, Belize and Cambodia - were given ‘red cards’ and were designated as non-cooperating countries. Sri Lanka has also been ‘red-carded.’ As a consequence, these countries were prevented from exporting seafood to the EU, and EU vessels were not allowed to fish in their waters. Belize has since had its red card removed following improvements in fisheries management, and Panama, Fiji, Togo and Tuvalu had ‘yellow cards’ removed. The countries that are working to avoid sanctions, now alongside Thailand, are South Korea, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Ghana, Curacao, Tuvalu, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis and the Solomon Islands.

A recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Pirates and Slaves, examines how ecosystem decline in Thailand’s waters, related to pirate fishing and overfishing, generated pressures leading to the widespread use of slavery throughout the Thai fishing industry and fuelled even greater levels of illegal fishing.

Effective fisheries management in Thailand would 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. EJF is calling on Thailand to adhere to the EU’s Action Plan for Improvement and increase efforts to combat pirate fishing in the next six months.

“Thai authorities exert very little control over their fishing vessels, with many activities illegally damaging fish stocks and the marine environment, and this is linked to some of the most exploitative and inhuman working conditions documented anywhere. These conditions include the use of slaves and extreme violence. It is time for the Thai government to take swift action to control the Thai fleet and end this environmental and human crisis.” - Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF


  • Pirate fishing depletes fish stocks, damages marine ecosystems, puts legitimate fishers at an unfair disadvantage, jeopardises the livelihoods of vulnerable communities and fosters human rights abuses onboard fishing vessels. The global cost of pirate fishing is estimated to be between 7 and 17 billion euros annually, representing 11 to 26 million tonnes of catch.
  • 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 €736 million worth of seafood from Thailand in 2013 (Eurostat, The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment (MARM), 2015).
  • 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).
  • 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).