A wave of change for Thai fishing fleets and the global seafood industry

Opinion - July 28, 2017
Thailand is on the brink of making real progress towards the elimination of destructive fishing and human rights abuses in its seafood supply chains. As a potential yellow card delisting from the European Commission looms, it remains to be seen whether the country will take the steps needed to fully meet the standards to eliminate human rights abuse in the seafood industry.  

Thai fishing vessel and crew

It’s fair to say that Thai authorities have made progress in key areas, including reforms to the legal and regulatory framework for fishing that was drawn up in 1947, along with improvements to and enforcement of labor regulations. At the UN Ocean Conference in New York this year, Thai delegates announced a voluntary commitment to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by rigorously controlling, monitoring, and inspecting all Thai-flagged fishing vessels operating inside and outside Thai waters. A key piece of this commitment is to eliminate all IUU fishing in Thai fishing fleets by 2019.

Understandably, this progress has been met with criticism, seen by some as insufficient and cosmetic. It remains to be seen how and whether the commitments will translate to real action.

The key question is whether these reforms will help Thailand to remove the worst offenders from the water and result in a net positive impact for oceans and people, relieving some of the environmental pressure from overfishing and destructive fishing that helps to drive forced labor and illegal fishing. Product traceability and transparency in procurement are also vital pieces of combatting seafood fraud and the laundering of fish caught through IUU fishing and forced labor.

Government regulations can only be effective if industry actually gets on board and heeds the call to reduce the impact of its operations on ocean life, support fisheries and aquaculture operations working to be part of the solution, and eliminate, once and for all, deplorable practices from its supply chains.

fisherman at dusk

Following a global Greenpeace campaign and extensive dialogue, the world’s largest tuna company— Thai Union— recently agreed to a comprehensive set of reforms to help transform its supply chains. In doing so, the company also sent a strong signal to the broader tuna sector and seafood industry that the destructive and socially irresponsible status quo must come to an end. If Thai Union acts on its commitments, by 2020, workers will have contracts that comply with the International Labour Organization's 188 convention- an employment contract in a language they can understand, and they’ll be able to report if that contract is breached at sea or in port.

The Thai seafood industry needs changes beyond Thai Union’s positive steps. All progressive companies must seek and champion solutions to the problems that have long riddled this industry.

There are other seafood giants in Thailand, across Asia, and around the globe whose businesses are disproportionately impacting our ocean ecosystems, and continuing to profit off labor abuse. The sheer volume of marine life that moves through the supply chains of these companies and the numerous people who bring that seafood to consumers warrant comprehensive and strong procurement policies that help reduce the ecological impact, ensure the health of fish populations, safeguard vulnerable species and habitats, respect labor and human rights, and protect the overall health of our oceans.

Yellow cards from the EU have proven to be strong incentives for other countries to combat illegal fishing. It must translate to meaningful action for Thailand as well. Private, public and third party stakeholders, both inside and outside of the country, have a responsibility to work together to ensure that only sustainably- and ethically-produced Thai seafood reaches shelves, freezers, sushi bars, and cat bowls around the world.

Tara Buakamsri is the Country Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia- Thailand


This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on July 27, 2017.