EU lifts yellow card on Thai fishing at some cost and with challenges ahead

The European Commission has removed Thailand from the warning group for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). The government resorted to Section 44 - NCPO's absolute power - 9 times to bring Thailand into line with EU standards and challenges remain.


Mr. Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said “Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing damages global fish stocks but it also hurts the people living from the sea, especially those already vulnerable to poverty.” and expressed pleasure that Thailand has become a collaborator in the fight against IUU fishing.

"Since the yellow card was issued, the Commission and Thailand have engaged in a constructive process of cooperation and dialogue. This has resulted in a major upgrade of the Thai fisheries governance in accordance with the international commitments of the country", says the EU press release.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that Deputy Prime Minister Gen Chatchai Sarikulya, representing the Thai government, travelled to participate in the press conference with Karmenu Vella at the European Union Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. He stated that Thailand gives importance not only to sustainable fishing, but also ethical fishing.

“Thailand has pledged to ensure that the working conditions in its domestic fishing industry meet the International Labour Organization (ILO) standards and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” according to the website, which also said that Thailand will become the first country in Asia to ratify ILO Convention 188 on Work in Fishing in late January.  

Food and Agriculture Organization had enacted an International Plan of Action on IUU in 2001, with the aim of creating sustainable management and use of marine resources. The plan of action called for voluntary implementation by all countries. The European Commission has been fighting against IUU for a long time and announced regulations in 2008 for EU member states and other nations worldwide to combat illegal fishing. Thailand itself is an exporter of marine products to the EU and so has to guarantee that its products are in accordance with the regulations.  

The database of the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) shows that 9 NCPO Head Orders were issued under Article 44 concerning illegal fishing and foreign labour.

9 NCPO Head Orders issued under Article 44
concerning illegal fishing and foreign labour

  1. NCPO Head Order No. 10/2015 on solving illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The Command Centre to Combat Illegal Fishing (CCCIF) determines policies dealing with human trafficking and illegal fishing, with the Thailand Maritime Enforcement Coordinating Centre (Thai-MECC) as the main force for marine and coastal work. 28 Port-in Port-out (PIPO) Control Centres were set up to monitor fishing according to method and time. A Vessel Monitoring System was installed to prevent vessel owners from allowing others to, for example, own fishing gear without permission, use fishing gear not in compliance with the license or fish without a license, fish with a vessel that is not in compliance with the law, etc.  Controls were placed on fishing vessels, vessels carrying fish products with cold rooms going into foreign waters and the high seas, and the transfer and conservation of marine animals in the Kingdom. Violations carry a penalty of no more than 1 year’s imprisonment or a fine of no more than 30 million baht or both, according to the violation.
  2. NCPO Head Order No. 24/2015 on solving the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The registration of Thai vessels was halted until the CCCIF determines otherwise and the use of fishing gear that is dangerous to marine animals was controlled., All persons were prohibited from using, or having in their possession for use in fishing, push nets used with motor boats, surrounding nets with a mesh size smaller than 2.5 centimetres used at night time, trawl nets with a mesh size smaller than 5 centimetres, etc.
  3. NCPO Head Order No. 42/2015. This was a second amendment to Order No. 10/2015, improving accuracy in the vessel registration system.
  4. NCPO Head Order No. 17/2016 transferred Wimon Jantrarotai, Director-General of the Department of Fisheries, to the Prime Minister’s Office and promoted Adisorn Promthep from Deputy Director-General to Director-General of the Department of Fisheries
  5. NCPO Head Order No. 18/2016, an additional amendment to NCPO Head Order no. 10/2015.
  6. NCPO Head Order No. 69/2016 suspended the statute of limitations on illegal fishing cases in which the accused or defendants have fled during trial or after conviction.
  7. NCPO Head Order No. 53/2016 further amended Order No. 10/2015 to control the number of fishing vessels, the transfer of crews, and reporting the docking location of vessels without licenses to the Director of Regional Marine Offices.
  8. NCPO Head Order No. 22/1017 further amended Order No. 10/2015 to authorize the relevant officials to deal with illegal fishing problems without delay.
  9. NCPO Head Order No. 8/2018 cancelled some measures in previous NCPO Head Orders on solving illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The government’s measures have proved to be successful in lifting the yellow card and have been welcomed by business. The Thai Union Group CEO, for instance, is pleased with the EU’s decision.  According to Nikkei Asian Review, Charoen Pokphand Foods, “whose offerings include such products as shrimp, also saw its shares jump on Jan. 9, approaching a one-month high.”

“Nowadays illegal fishery is no longer about resources – shrimp, shellfish, crabs, fish – but about paperwork." - Kritpasu Charoen

However, some sources mentioned the price of the repeated use of Article 44 and numerous laws passed by the NCPO-dominated parliament. One concern was that government measures were imposed at short notice, with harsh penalties, and without the participation of the people involved.  In 2015, the President of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand reported that many fishers had committed suicide due to the stress caused by the financial cost of new equipment, while the officials said they were ready to provide support. In November 2018, the Bhum Jai Thai Party held a seminar with fisheries representatives. Kritpasu Charoen, a committee member of Pattani Fisheries Association , said that more than 300 laws had been passed by the government and the measures went well beyond what the EU requires. Many of them obstruct the fishery industry.

“Nowadays illegal fishery is no longer about resources – shrimp, shellfish, crabs, fish – but about paperwork. For example, the weight of fish caught is not consistent with what is filled out in the form, or the lunchbreak hour for workers was not signed off on. The IUU people said to make it an offence for fishery people who damage resources, but instead the state set out laws that make it an offence for fishery people who get the forms wrong.  Most people working in the fishery industry are from the older generations.  Some finished just 4 years of primary school, enough to read and write. We want the government to come to talk to the fishers about the problems that happen,” said Kritpasu.

Mr. Surin Nithiwattanaprasit, an advisor to the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, said that there are some parts of Thailand with no Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) signal. When VMS stops reporting to the PIPO (Port-in Port-out) Centre, it will call the vessel back to port and the boat will have to cover its own costs of sailing back.

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, who led the Future Forward Party to visit Trat and Pattani, also heard the same grievances.  “Many businessmen in commercial fishery that I talked to have no problem with IUU.  They are all ready to comply.  It is just that they need cooperation over the timing to gradually extend the steps that are required. They want a role in discussions about laws and measures that will come out and the points that they can accept which are both consistent with the standards and let their businesses survive.” A consequence, Piyabutr claimed, is that small- and medium-sized businesses will not be able to live up to the standards; their licenses will be seized and their businesses will be closed, leading to monopoly of big corporates.        

On 8 January 2019, while welcoming Thailand’s progress and the EU’s decision, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) made a statement that “important gaps remain.” EJF found shortcomings in the inspections, including the inability to provide consistent translation services for migrant crews. “Without the threat of sanctions from the EU, strong political will is needed to entrench the positive progress already made and ensure its long-term success”, said the EJF statement.