Thailand is proposing sweeping changes to fisheries laws that could weaken penalties for illegal fishing and the protection of workers, reversing gains made several years ago and threatening billions of dollars worth of trade, opponents say.

The changes include reduced penalties for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, the deregulation of destructive fishing gears such as trawling nets, reintroducing the banned practice of transshipment of seafood at sea, and the relaxation of regulations on catching protected marine species.

Jail terms would be eliminated for all IUU offences and some fines could be decreased by 98 per cent. For example, the maximum fine for fishing in a marine protected area could be reduced from approximately US$825,000 currently to just US$13,750.

Labour protections – aimed at ensuring the safety of mostly migrant workers at sea – could also be rolled back. Some draft bills include re-allowing the transfer of boat crews at sea and removing requirements for vessels to provide crew lists before leaving port. These raise concerns about workers’ welfare and the heightened risk of human trafficking.

The Thai parliament is currently considering the raft of new bills from different political parties in the government and opposition.
While different parties and the national cabinet have proposed different law changes, which are currently being negotiated, they agree that the current legislation is too strict on commercial fishers.

“What every political party has agreed on is about the penalties within the law, which we think are overreaching,” said Mr Woraphop Viriyaroj, a member of parliament representing the Move Forward Party and the deputy chairman of the committee to consider the draft amendments to the Fisheries Act.

“To amend this law doesn’t mean we will cancel everything and change it back to the way it was before,” he said. We are aware that there was a problem then for fisheries and labour, and nobody wants to go back to that point. But right now, the law leaves no flexibility.”

Yellow Cards And Political Games

The commercial fishing industry in Thailand has long argued that the existing regulations, imposed in 2015 by the then-military government, are unfair and hurt business operations. Thailand had toughened regulations in response to being given a “yellow card” by the European Union (EU) in 2015 for failing to take sufficient actions against illegal fishing in its territory. At the time, the country’s seafood exports were at risk of broad bans.

The yellow card acts as a formal warning for countries to improve their practices or risk receiving a red card, which would result in export bans to the EU. Thailand was delisted as a warned country in 2019 due to the progress it had made.

In 2014, the United States Department of State had also slapped Thailand with a Tier 3 ranking in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the lowest grade possible. But the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT), which represents 58 commercial fishing members across 22 provinces, has powerfully lobbied for change. Its president, Mr Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, told CNA the industry is facing plummeting profits, difficulties in securing labour and overregulation.

“The military interpreted IUU regulations broadly and enforced it in a way that has made it impossible for the fishing industry to do business,” he said.

He was unconcerned about the EU reimposing a yellow card on Thailand, saying exports to that region made up only about 5 per cent of Thailand’s annual total.

“The US and EU should understand that we are making this bill in parliament … and they should support us.”

Dramatic U-Turn On Previous Good Work, Ngo Says

But some global seafood brands and non-governmental organisations have written to Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, concerned that weaker regulations would harm Thailand’s reputation as well as the long-term viability of its fisheries sector.

Mr Dominic Thomson, a deputy director for the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) in Southeast Asia, said such drastic changes would inevitably result in important export market partners taking a closer look at Thailand’s seafood industry again.

Analysis by the EJF found that up to 60 per cent of Thailand’s seafood exports worth some US$3.3 billion annually could be at risk of future sanctions, including those to the EU, US, Australia and Japan.

“Why is Thailand taking such an extreme stance on this and making such a dramatic U-turn on its international commitments, and on its previous good work that’s actually been done on fisheries reform?” he said.

“Because if they do go the full hog and take away all of these reforms, as they intend to do, then it really does derail the entire process from an environmental perspective, but also on human rights.”