A Conversation on Thai Fisheries with MEP Linnea Engstrom

A Conversation on Thai Fisheries with MEP Linnea Engstrom
  • Last week, we had the great privilege of hosting New York Times writer Ian Urbina who published a story detailing the plight of "sea slaves" who are powering the pet food industry.

    Today, it is our great honor to be hosting MEP Linnea Engstrom for a conversation on an important topic facing the Europe: whether or not the EU should issue a red card to Thailand over its, frankly, shocking practices.  Ms. Engstrom is a Swedish member the Greens Party and the deputy chair of the fisheries committee in European Parliament.

    Welcome Ms. Engstrom -- can you describe for us the basic problem and the question before the EU.

  • Thank You for inviting me! Really looking forward to the debate on this very important topic, which I've also been very much engaged in the last couple of months. 

    Thailand is facing a "red-card" according to the IUU-regulation (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) from the Commission. This is due to Thailand's extensive illegal fishing practices. A full "red-card status" would mean an import-ban on Thai fisheries products to the EU. A severe threat to the third-largest exporter of fisheries products in the world. Thailand now has a yellow card according to the same regulation, and they can ask for that card to be extended while they make changes to fully comply with EU-law.

    The political situation in Thailand right now is difficult, and from a human rights and democratic perspective there have been a lot of criticism and disappointment from many MEP's that Thailand failed to adopt their new constitution. When it comes to fisheries, the Thai-leadership admits not taking this huge challenge of "cleaning-up" the fishing industry seriously, until they got the yellow-card from COM six months ago.The previous negotiations with the COM didn't result in any major changes.

    Thailand is facing a lot of problems when it comes to corruption among officials, a great obstacle to fully implement the demands in the IUU-regulation. Thailand now seems determined to put some real effort in meeting the demands. From what I was told, the Thai-leadership are planning a field trip to Spain to see their VMS-system and learn more about how it operates. This is because Thailand needs a fully operating VMS-system if they are to properly monitor what is going on in the fisheries-sector. This is  just one of the major challenges that Thailand is now trying to attend to.

  • Which begs the question, even with the threat of a red card from the EU, does the Thai government even have the ability to clean up the abuses taking place aboard these fishing boats?

  • That's a good question. The time seems rather short for the tremendous changes that needs to be dealt with. To set up a fully operating VMS-system which is working properly, with proper monitoring, port-in and port-out services fully working and so on is no piece of cake, with Thailand beginning almost from scratch. To me it seems impossible to manage during such a short period of time.

    An important characteristic of the IUU-regulation is its dynamic and flexible nature. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Commission is able to react rapidly to developments in the third country, either by recommending the full identification of the country concerned, or removing the country from the lists if they make sufficient improvements to indicate that they are reliable partners in the fight against IUU-fishing. This has happened with many countries and shows how beneficial the regulation has been in persuading third countries to upgrade their fisheries control systems.

    It's no secret that I've been critical when I think the COM has lifted the pre-identification of a country too soon. Just to mention one example, I recently sent in a question to the COM on the fraudulent behaviour of Korea and how we can still consider Korea to be a reliable partner in the fight against IUU-fishing.

    On 7 October 2015, the IOTC-secretariat sent Circular 2015/092, consisting of a correction in the tonnage values for 38 Korean purse seiners that had been fishing in the Indian Ocean. The correction was allegedly to give values in Gross Tonnage rather than in Gross Registered Tonnage. Korea claimed that it had "erroneously" used GRT in 2009, even though GT has been the international standard for decades and in effect for Korea since 1990. 

    The total capacity of the Korean fleet operating in the Indian Ocean had thus been misrepresented by 50% with all of the resulting consequences for proper fisheries management.

  • Is there any way to estimate the kind of monetary loss Thailand will incur if they, indeed, do receive a red card? 

  • Earlier this spring I participated in a seminar, where the Thai-leadership also held a presentation, which was arranged by the EJF-foundation. EJF also produced the short-film and report "Pirates and slaves". A sum was mentioned at that seminar, that Thailand, being the third-largest seafood exporter in the world, had exports at an estimated value of €7.8 billion in 2012. According to the same foundation, the EU imported €736 million worth of seafood from Thailand in 2013. It's not really my expertise to judge whether these figures are accurate, but it is of course a lot of money we're talking about here.

    It's crucial that trade-interests are not interfering with this process on conquering IUU-fishing. Fish caught illegally can often appear very economically attractive. Since it is caught by disregarding environmental, social and other standards, the fishermen can usually sell it for less money. Wholesalers and retailers thus find it less expensive to buy, though they may not always know that it has been caught illegally. 

    The economic drive for cheap sea-food in the EU and U.S. explains the distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of many for the IUU-regulation. It’s easy to be against illegal fishing in principle, in fact it is difficult to not be. But when opposition to illegal fishing can lead to interruptions in supply of fish to the EU-market, or reduce profits, or interfere with trade with important trading partners of the EU, then illegal fishing becomes much more difficult to fight. 

  • And then we still go back to the issue of efficacy. 

    Thailand, for those who don't know, is under the control of a military junta that often disregards and suppresses civil rights. Can the EU really expect them to resolve human rights abuses in another arena?
  • Well, tricky I know. This should be a very prioritized issue for the Thai-leadership and that is of course because of the huge impact that fisheries has for the economy. Money talks. 

    What I've heard, nothing really works properly in the political system in Thailand right now, but that they put in place a special committee to solve the demands placed by the IUU-regulation.


    The regulation primarily adresses the transparency and control in the fisheries concerned. The IUU-regulation doesn't cover human rights violations, but if the transparency and control increases, a positive consequence might be the detection and conquering of trafficking and slave-like conditions in the sector.

    If we have well-educated inspectors that go on-board boats and see the conditions with the purpose of checking log-books for example, they can also detect slave-labour or if there are no staff-records for migrant workers. That is at least the idea. Also, if we have proper port-in port-out routines, it will be increasingly hard to force poor migrants to stay out at sea on the now famous "ghost-boats" for several years. At the same time, all these measures demands that the extensive corruption among officials are also dealt with.

  • Linnea -- thanks again for being so generous with your time.  

    Before you go, one final question: human slavery would seem to cut across party lines, why would someone oppose issuing Thailand the red card?

  • Thank You, it's been a pleasure discussing this very exciting topic!

    In the fight against illegal fishing we're united over party lines, that's correct. At least we who know the issues at stake. In the fisheries committee in the European parliament I would say there's a strong dedication and support for the IUU-regulation, no matter of party affiliation. Of course there are also illegal fishing going on  inside the EU, but MEP:s have an interest that the EU is not flooded with illegally caught and cheap fish that tend to dump prices and presents a very unfair competition to their national fishermen. 

    The problem tend to be when this process on conquering  IUU-fishing, clashes with strong trade interests that I described in my answer above. For example, several of us in the fisheries committee criticized the decision to give the Philippines a GSP+ status ( very beneficial trade status)  when they we're at the same pre-identified with a yellow card. That sent the wrong messages in a delicate process where one part of the Commission was trying to do a good job with putting pressure on a country to regulate their fisheries, and another part gave total different signals. Unfortunately this was a battle we didn't win in the plenary vote at that time. We in the fisheries committee were united, but we didn't succeed in explaining and convincing the colleagues to wait with granting a GSP+ status. Trade interests are of course very strong.