What are some of the biggest challenges facing Thailand's fishing industry?
We are reforming the entire fishery industry, namely not just traditional fishing, but aquaculture, inland fishing, and fisheries outside of Thai waters. We oversee and reform the entire industry, including imports and exports, which are crucial to Thailand's output. For example, although Thailand is the biggest exporter of canned tuna, we in fact import most of our tuna and there is a whole process there to manage, which eventually has a great impact on global seafood stockpiles. Lately our industry has been under fire from some key markets, such as the EU, which threatens to ban fish imports from us if we do not properly regulate the industry and stamp out illegal fishing practices. For us the reforms are not purely about regulating the market; it is about the concept behind the regulation and our philosophy. This is important because it is not just the structure that needs to be changed, but also the way we approach our work and support our people. For example, one issue that has been frequently raised is licensing and ensuring that all fishing activities are approved with the necessary licenses. While this is a crucial aspect to regulating the industry, it is very important to remember that across Thailand we have millions of subsistence farmers who go out fishing simply to feed their families or their immediate communities. It is impossible to force these people to abide by the same, strict regulatory process that was designed for big businesses. We therefore need to change the way we understand and better utilize our fisheries' potential rather than just throwing regulations at the problem.
What will these reforms include?
With the new law, under the Royal Ordinance on Fisheries, we have made it clear we need to use the best scientific information to manage our industry, such as the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), which is a reference point to calculate how much fish can be collected from the sea every year. From that, we can accurately decide how to approach the issue and how many fishing licenses to issue each year. This is the new concept and the way forward, and from there we can build on our new system. There will be more transparency because, right now, one of the biggest issues is simply accounting for all the vessels, the number of workers they have onboard, the gear they use, and so on. Then there is the second stage of the process, which involves permission to go to the port and sell fish at landing sites. We will have a new system to report how much and the types of fish that are collected from each trip and, after that, a system to track whether the fish makes its way to the market, the factory, or is intended straight for export; we want to track everything in what we call the traceability system. We also consider equipment such as fingerprints and face scanners, which will help us monitor the labor situation. In recent years, issues such as labor abuses and migrant workers have drawn a great deal of criticism for Thailand's fishing industry and we are determined to stamp out all illegal activity. However, it is important to note this issue does not necessarily fall under our scope and is more relevant to the Ministry of Labor or the Department of Immigration.
Has this become an issue of national importance?
Yes, it has. We have two problems—the illegal unreported unregulated (IUU) issue and the labor issue—that everyone keeps conflating. These are in fact two different issues with different regulations but most often people assume that if you are doing IUU fishing you also do human trafficking or forced labor. We know we have problems in the fishery sector so we try to solve both problems together although they require different kinds of regulations, enforcements, and so on. As mentioned, the aim is not to throw red tape and regulations at the industry until businesses cannot survive anymore. We regulate to support our businesses and make sure they are doing a better job, which will help them reach new heights in the world. There are many key players who in fact do things by the book and this is all about eliminating the ones who cheat the system, undercut their workers, and bring down the reputation of our country. Right now we try to promote the new system and concept for smaller companies and independent fishermen and get them to understand that it is good to be in the system as it is clean, efficient, and protects people from exploiting the market. In the system if they have good accessibility, they will also benefit from marketing their products properly as today the average consumer is involved with the origins of their food, i.e., how safe it is and so on. As such this issue is definitely of vital national importance as a significant contributor to Thailand's exports and with millions of livelihoods at stake.
What is your expectation for the fishing industry and do you think Thailand will overcome these challenges?
The quicker we move with enacting and implementing these reforms, the better it will be. If you look at history, many countries, including Japan and Europe, have struggled to reform their fishery industries and it was a very gradual process. We do not have that luxury; we do not have time to do it and we also do not have much money to do it. Thailand is a diverse economy so we simultaneously need to invest and develop many sectors, and not just fisheries. However, the government sees the significance of the fishery sector so it gives us attention and as much resources as it can allocate so we try to move as fast as we can and in the most efficient way. We have outlined our strategy and plans to restructure the way things are done, both here in the department, and out at sea. If we succeed in doing this in an effective timeframe, I am more than confident that Thailand will continue to boast one of the biggest fishing industries in the world.