Something Fishy with Thailand’s Fishing Industry

Thailand’s military rulers are making another effort to sidetrack European Union threats to hand out a “red card” to the Thai fishing industry for illegal fishing – and the trafficking and labor abuse which are also widespread.

In a curious reflection on the competence of Thai armed forces, the junta has sacked the navy chief Na Areenij as head of the Command Center to Combat Illegal Fishing. This is supposed to be making a serious effort to tackle the problem before the EU raises its warning signal from yellow to red. A red card would result in massive loss of fish exports and undermine the profits of Thailand’s two great exploiters of the seas, Thai Union Foods, the world’s largest tuna producer, and the giant Sino-Thai CP group.

Instead of the naval commander, the job at the CCCIF has been given to the Minister of Agriculture Chatichai Sarikulya who has appointed the department permanent secretary run the unit. This is the wake of a recent visit by EU experts who gave Thailand a little, but unspecified, amount of time to clean up its act.

Quite how the ministry bureaucrats are supposed to succeed when the navy man has apparently failed is not clear. The reality is that if the navy is too corrupted by its relationship with the fishing industry, the chances of the ministry, which lacks force on waters, doing better is nil. The EU has criticized both the lack of a viable legal framework and of monitoring and supervision of the industry.

Probably only the big companies are in a position to change the state of affairs. They make all the right noises about ending illegal fishing and labor abuse and they need to be concerned about the EU threat. On the other hand they have themselves made so much money out of the fishing business that they will do little unless threatened with serious losses.

As it is, prospects for a broader free trade deal with the EU are on hold as long as the junta remains in power and there are no genuine elections. The Thai economy is struggling to grow at more than 2.5 percent annually and much is that is coming from the tourism sector, not exactly one of the higher value-added industries the country needs. Government infrastructure spending is also giving a boost, but further growth is limited by concerns about debt levels and the economic viability of some projects.

Blaming El Nino may be a partial excuse for weak economic performance. The end of El Nino and the start of la Nina promises heavier than normal rains this summer which will allow replenishment of depleted reservoirs while farmers can rely on rain-fed paddy. However, the outlook for farm prices remains dim as the world has now got through a severe El Nino without appearing to put food stocks under pressure. At around US$375 a tonne, rice on world markets is actually slightly cheaper than a year ago. Sugar and palm oil prices have picked up and though rubber is off the bottom it is still no higher than a year ago. Meanwhile shrimp prices have plummeted. Tuna prices hit a recent low in December 2015 then recovered as US tuna fleets remained in port. However they are now out again so Thailand’s suppliers will face more competition.

With foreign investment into ASEAN increasingly focused on Vietnam and Indonesia, Thailand is seeing little in the way of new industries to broaden its industrial base. Nor is there much sign of the increase in farm productivity badly needed if farm incomes are not to rise without on price support that the government cannot afford.

After two years in power, and now that it has boosted infrastructure spending – and the budget deficit -- the junta has exhausted its stock of ideas for improving the economy. The new appointment, which appears only to mask continued maritime depredation, probably won’t staff off the EU and penalties for the fishing industry for very long.