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One Night in Bangkok - Part II: The Thais That Bind

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
October 14, 2015

One Night in Bangkok - Part II: The Thais That Bind Photo Credit: Flickr User Mike Behnken

This November, Friend of the Sea and Dolphin-Safe (aka Earth Island Institute) are hosting a meeting in Bangkok with the Thai Tuna Industry Association to reach out to retail and catering buyers. In our previous post in this three part series, we covered Friend of the Sea and Earth Island’s reputations as “environmental groups”. Today we are investigating Thailand’s track record.

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Thailand is a huge player in the global seafood market. They are the third largest exporter of fish by value and their exports are equal to seven percent of the global total exported value. Many people don’t realize that 55 percent of the canned tuna sold in the U.S. comes from Thailand. But Thailand has several dirty secrets when it comes to their fishing industry. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major problem, the use of ecologically destructive fishing practices, lack of transparency and slavery on fishing boats are all par for the course in Thailand.

Let’s go issue by issue and demonstrate why most environmental groups steer clear of Thailand and organizations like the Thai Tuna Industry Association.

IUU Fishing:

Earlier this year, we covered the European Union’s “Yellow Card” to Thailand because of IUU fishing. In a nutshell, there is so little regulation in Thailand (and in much of South East Asia in general), it is almost impossible to trace fish caught in Thai waters and unloaded at Thai ports. There is no proof that these fish are legally caught and no third party observers to ensure that international laws and regulations are being followed to protect the fishery or the people working on the fishing boats. The yellow card was the first step in a process that could eventually result in an import ban of Thai seafood in the EU. Thai authorities were given six months to create and implement an action plan. The EU will be sending a fact-finding mission to Thailand this month to examine both the fisheries control and social conditions in the fishing industry. They are expected to rule in December. But as a result of the yellow card and increased scrutiny, there is evidence of Thai fishing boats unloading their catch in Cambodia, another country with serious traceability issues and further complicating the problem of regulating the industry.

Ecological Devastation:

Those who engage in IUU fishing have very little regard for laws and regulations meant to protect the environment and maintain healthy fish populations. Their goal is to make as much money as possible and if that means fishing in a manner that destroys the ecosystem on which they fish – no matter. They’ll move elsewhere and start the process all over again. They fish out of season, in closed fisheries, with fishing methods that kill local economies.

Trawlers – a fishing method favored by IUU fishers-pull huge nets through the water, sometimes dragging the nets across the sea floor. These boats make up just 13 percent of the fishing vessels in Thailand, but are responsible for more than half of the country's catch. Trawling indiscriminately picks up everything in its path, damaging the sea floor and hauls in about 60 percent bycatch. This devastates both the ecosystem and small fishermen who can’t compete with these giant ships and have seen their catch fall significantly due to over fishing and environmental degradation.

Slavery:

Sadly, in addition to the environmental toll, IUU fishing has a human toll as well. There is significant evidence that IUU fishing contributes to major human rights abuses. A 2012 “Trafficking in Persons” report put out by the U.S. State Department found that human trafficking often occurs concurrently with IUU fishing, noting, “testimonies from survivors of forced labor on fishing vessels have revealed that many of the vessels on which they suffered exploitation used banned fishing gear, fished in prohibited areas, failed to report or misreported catches, operated with fake licenses, and docked in unauthorized ports—all illegal fishing practices that contribute to resource depletion and species endangerment.”

In fact, earlier this year, excellent reporting by the Associated Press exposed the huge issue of slavery in the Thai fishing industry. The reports outline horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture, and execution-style killings. What was the government of Thailand’s response to the piece? Leader of the military junta that runs Thailand, General Prayuth Chan-ocha said "The people who published the news will have to be held responsible." Not the companies who are enslaving people, but the journalists who have exposed these horrors must be held responsible. Mind boggling isn’t it? Not entirely when you recognize that the Thai economy is built on seafood exports and therefore, slave labor.

Since the AP exposé, the U.S. State Department has announced that Thailand will stay on Tier 3, the lowest tier, of the Trafficking in Persons report. The State Department says that the Thai government had not fully complied with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and was not making significant efforts to do so. In the past few months several lawsuits have been filed against Thai Union, parent company of U.S. tuna brand Chicken of the Sea. These suits allege that Thai Union, the largest producer of canned tuna in the world, “turned a blind eye” to slavery and human rights abuses in their supply chain. Meanwhile, the scions of the owners of Thai Union are now the majority owners of two English Football League teams – Reading and Sheffield.

As you can see, these three issues alone offer enough reason for environmental and human rights groups alike to put pressure on Thailand to make significant reforms. Serious environmental groups like Greenpeace and WWF are putting substantial pressure on Thailand, why would “environmental” groups Friend of the Sea and Earth Island Institute think it’s prudent to partner with and support the Thai fishing industry? It boils down to one thing: money. In Thailand, seafood is treated as a get rich quick scheme and Friend of the Sea and Earth Island want to reap the rewards, no matter the cost. In the last installment of this series, we will cover the money issue. Stay tuned.