A fishing boat returns to Samut Sakhon port near Bangkok in this file shot from 2011. The Prayut government is looking to buy up about 1,900 vessels that have been idle since tougher regulations were imposed to eliminate illegal and unregulated fishing. Photo: iStock

The Thai government has agreed to buy 1,900 fishing vessels back from their owners to placate fishermen, who have been upset by the military administration’s tougher fisheries policy.

A spokesman for the military said the committee overseeing the sector had decided to buy the trawlers, which have been unable to operate over the past two years because of tougher regulatory conditions, the Bangkok Post reported.

The administration was forced to rein in activities of the local fishing industry after threats of trade retaliation by the European Union in 2015.

Foreign and local labor activists plus human rights groups have long condemned the Thai fishing industry as a sector out of control, with a history of gross abuse of foreign crews and rampant overfishing, which is said to have greatly depleted local seas of fish.

EU pressure to act on illegal fishing

The EU has been pressing Thai authorities to combat illegal, unreported and illegal (IUU) fishing for several years, saying the country needed to ratify and adopt the International Labour Organisation’s convention on work in the fishing industry, enact measures to combat IUU fishing and create a sustainable fishery plan.

The Prayut government responded by amending fishery laws and introducing “maximum sustainable yields” to reduce over-fishing –  limiting the number of boats, plus reducing the number of days fish can be caught from 300 to 210. This undermined the profitability of vessels and caused 1,900 boats to be docked.

It also set up a system to monitor both vessels – while they are at sea, plus when they return to Thai ports – and new measures to better ensure that crews, including thousands of workers from adjacent countries and migrants in fish processing factories receive fair pay and working hours, as well as suitable living conditions.

Fishermen threatening to rally

The Thai Fishery Association, which acts on behalf of large trawlers, called on the government to help fishermen affected by its “tough” policies and buy back boats to offset losses. The association has networks of fishermen in coastal provinces and was threatening to rally to pressure the government.

The committee overseeing the sector, headed by Defense Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, agreed to set up a fund to help needy fishermen. Loans from the Government Savings Bank will be used to buy up the vessels for an amount that has yet to be disclosed.

A further 130 million baht (about US$4 million) collected from fishery licenses will also be used, as the government sees the problem as one that must be dealt with promptly. A spokesman likened the situation to the cloud that hung over the aviation industry in regard to licensing and meeting international safety standards.

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