BANGKOK – Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha called for calm on Wednesday, and urged fishermen whose boats met the required standards to shun taking strike action.
This comes after Thailand fisheries have gone on strike over new government regulations that took effect on Wednesday after the country was told by the European Union to clamp down on illegal fishing.
“We can’t avoid this crack down because if we don’t pass international assessment what will happen?” Prayuth told reporters. “Those vessels that can go out to fish must go.”
Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, was given six months by the EU in April to crack down on illegal fishing or face a trade ban on its fish imports.
Thailand’s annual exports to the EU are estimated to be worth between 575 million to 730 million euros ($641 million-$813 million). Overall fish exports were worth around $3 billion in 2014, according to the Thai Frozen Foods Association.
Fishermen have gone on strike in 22 out of 76 provinces to protest against the new requirements being enforced, according to national fishing associations.
Some have been unable to take their boats out to sea as they did not meet new regulations requiring all boats to have licenses, registered fishing equipment and navigation systems.
Others said they feared being caught. Those who don’t comply with the new regulations face up to three years in jail.
Thailand’s National Shippers’ Council said around 40,000 vessels have been registered to date while 3,000 remain unregistered.
Kamolsak Lertpaiboon, secretary-general of the Fishing Association of Thailand, said fishermen needed more time to comply with the new laws.
“Many illegal fishing boats are owned by simple villagers who need to be trained and need funds to buy the required equipment,” said Kamolsak.
A high percentage of the Thai fishing fleet is unregistered and outside of government control, making it difficult to track vessels. Even registered vessels often sail without catch documentation and operation certificates.
Wiriya Sirichaiekawat, vice-chairman of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, feared a prolonged strike could lead to layoffs. Thailand’s fishing industry employs more than 300,000 people, many of them illegal migrant workers from neighbouring countries. ($1 = 0.8977 euros)
Samut Sakhon Province will be one that will be hard hit by the stoppage as not only it has the largest work force of foreign workers in the fishing industry, but also food related industries not only for local consumption but for exports.
According to local authorities, one to be hard hit is the fish filleting industry which is the leading link in the fisheries industry chain.
The main factor affecting their business is the fact that they depend entirely upon fresh fish supplies to operate as they do not possess storing facilities.
Fresh fish is a prerequisite for such industries and without a fresh supply of fish they are unable to cater to consumer demands.
One small business owner relates that on average he buys in excess of 1,000 kg of fresh fish every day which is de-scaled, skinned and filleted so that the meat can then be turned into fish-balls and fishcakes.
As a result of the stoppage, supplies of fresh fish has dwindled.
He stated that there is a strong possibility that he will have to lay off his workforce which amounts to between 30 – 40 workers, most of them migrant workers, as he would not be able to shoulder the 400,000 – 500,000 baht monthly expenditure burden.
“Of course we are affected. We have expenditures and financial responsibilities that we must meet every month. And all these are dependent upon the fish supplies! When fishermen stop fishing we can do nothing but bear it and accept the consequence,” he said.
The same can also be said for canned sardine exporting factories large and small which total more than 15 in the Samut Sakhon area.
These factories depend solely on fish caught in the Gulf of Thailand as raw material and the strike has already imposed difficulties on their production schedule.
The Anusorn Mahachai Group specializing is surimi (ground fish meat) and canned sardines for export on a regularly basis, requires more than 100 tons of fresh fish everyday but has been forced to halt the surimi production line for three days now.
Surimi production requires 100% freshly caught fish which is processed and exported. As for the canned sardines production line, stocks of fresh fish that had been stored are rapidly dwindling. All these factors have forced them to announce a halt in production from July 4 onward until the situation improves.
Anusorn Mahachai Group chief of executive Mr Aphisit Thecha-nittisawas admitted the effects would need be felt throughout the entire supply chain.
He said, “Fresh markets have no fish to sell and fishermen have stopped fishing. As a result fishing vessel supplies such as fuel, fishing equipment providers are also affected. Ice factories and ground fish factories also have to stop! The entire fisheries industry has ground to a stop because we don’t have the raw materials we need.”
Meanwhile the Thai Frozen foods Association warned that the fishing stoppage will adversely affect factories and consumers as a whole.
But it stated that supply shortage in the fish processing sector has been going on for more than 3 years and many factories have had to resort to purchasing seafood supplies from other countries such as Indonesia.
With regards to fishing vessels that have failed to correctly register within the government deadline, the association stated that there are numerous small fishing vessels operators that have taken part because they do not know any better and have gone along with the crowd.
One association member said everyone in the seafood processing sector agrees that Thailand’s fishing vessels must all register in accordance with international standards and they must do so within September which is only 2 months away.
Should this not be completed by October then Thailand will suffer even more as our seafood products will then be red-flagged which will mean that we can no longer export to other countries , he said.
(Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat in SAMUT SAKHON and Pracha Hariraksapitak and Khettiya Jittapong in BANGKOK)