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Story Publication logo August 31, 2012

Thailand: The Overfishing Underclass


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In Thailand, one of the world's most rapidly developing countries, sustainability often takes the...

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A traditional fisherman in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. Image by Adam Janofsky. Thailand, 2012.

At the heart of Samut Sakhon, a small town dwarfed by neighboring Bangkok, fishermen from around the area gather every morning at what's known as the City Pillar Shrine. The routine—lighting a candle or stick of incense and praying for a fruitful journey—has been the same for generations. Samut Sakhon has always been a "Fishing City," as its official slogan says, nestled right in the Gulf of Thailand's armpit.

Though Thailand's modernization over the past half century has affected almost all parts of life, leaving Samut Sakhon with industrial factories, railroads, and highways to the region's largest metropolis, it's hard to tell at first glance that the fishing tradition has followed suit.

On any given day across the Gulf of Thailand, 13,000 small boats skim the coast. Some are one-man rowboats, some are small motorboats, and others are traditional junks that slowly trawl the seabed. According to Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, over 90 percent of Thai fishermen work in small-scale fisheries and depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood.

It may seem idyllic in this beautiful landscape—fishermen in small boats casting their own nets, sailors pulling in a shrimp haul—but this area of the world is slowly seeing its own destruction. As one of the most overfished regions on the globe, both small and large fishing operations contribute to resource depletion, species endangerment through bycatch and water pollution.

The fishing industry has also been entwined with human trafficking and forced labor since the 1980s. While some of these issues have plateaued or improved, others have no solution in sight.

The Big Shrimp

It's known as "tiger prawn" in parts of the Gulf, and it's Thailand's version of striking oil. If you check on the back of a bag of frozen shrimp in North America or Europe, there's a good chance it came from Thailand.

The country is the largest shrimp exporter in the world, and it exports so much to countries like the United States and Japan that it's actually difficult to find quality shrimp on your plate in Thailand. That's because it's the most value traded fish product according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), accounting for 15 percent of the $200 billion global fish market, and Thailand exports almost all of its catch.

But while shrimp may be the most valuable seafood product, it's also one of the most dangerous to ecosystems.

Hundreds of shrimping trawlers drift along the coasts of Thailand—mainly to the west, in Burmese waters, due to overfishing in the Gulf of Thailand. A trawler is essentially a weighted net pulled along the sea floor, and it works by lifting up the top layer of mud to collect the shrimp that live there.

One of the largest and most obvious problems with bottom trawling is that it picks up unwanted species, including crab, squid, and finfish. In the fishing industry, this is known as "bycatch," and shrimping has one of the highest rates—on average, the ratio of bycatch to actual shrimp is 6:1.

Ideally, bycatch would be sorted and thrown back overboard, but bottom trawlers have high mortality rates for finfish. A large share of bycatch is either dead by the time the net is emptied, or is injured in the process.

In addition to bycatch, trawling disrupts ocean beds, destroying seaweed and coral.

Although the indigenous black tiger shrimp was abundant in the region through the 1980s, regulation wasn't able to keep up with Thailand's economic development. "The Thai fishing industry has gone through a textbook example of rapid modernization and industrialization of the fleet in the 70s and 80s, which led to overfishing," says Yumiko Kura of the WorldFish Center in Phnom Penh.

As catches dwindle, fishermen look for other options and many have found a solution in aquaculture—essentially shrimp farming in large tanks. Over 70 percent of shrimp production today is from aquaculture. And while it may be a boon for wild shrimp—Kura says the Thai government has supported aquaculture as a way to sustain the wild fish population—the process has environmental consequences of its own.

Large expanses of land near the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea have been rapidly converting to aquaculture over the past few years. Although the government has set up regulations to protect the mangrove forests in the area, they're still being cut down albeit at a slower rate.

Shrimp aquaculture, as it turns out, also produces a lot of waste. Excrement, shells, and antibiotics settle on the bottom of shrimp farms and create a thick layer of sludge. It's common practice for farmers to clean out the sludge and let it dry in the sun. But eventually, the waste mixes with rainwater and makes its way into waterways.

"The smell is bad enough," said Boonsong Malasri, who grew up in Songkhla Province.

Despite its problems, the Thai government and international community see aquaculture as the lesser of two evils. There has been a consensus toward tougher regulation for open water fishing in Thailand, and overfishing has reached critical levels for many species: The percent of overexploited, depleted, or recovering fish stocks jumped from 10 percent in the 1970s to 32 percent in 2008, according to the FAO.

But there are also calls for a more gradual and regulated approach to aquaculture too. Thailand now ranks fifth in the world for aquaculture production, exporting over 1.2 million tons of farmed fish in 2010. Organizations like Greenpeace say that this boom could end up similar to the one at sea in the 1980s—although fish stocks aren't at stake, aquaculture does take a toll of the environment and there could be serious damage if sustainable regulations aren't put in place and followed.

The shift to aquaculture also causes a shift of nature, which can actually be beneficial for some species native to Thailand, like the black tiger shrimp. Most farmed shrimp in the region is now whiteleg shrimp, native to Central and South America. Over 70 percent of all exported shrimp is this variety. "In sharp contrast, the giant tiger prawn has lost importance in the last decade," according to FAO's World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing sectors in global agriculture, and Thailand has been quick to revolutionize its fishing practices. But it's not clear when real, sustainable regulations will follow.

The Foreign Fisherman

Of all the unsustainable practices in the Thai fishing industry, none is more perilous than human trafficking.

The story has been the same for decades: Rural residents of poor neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia seek the higher wages and better living standards Thailand has to offer. They're lured by brokers, who offer to get them across the border where they can work on fishing boats or in fish processing factories for a share of their earnings. Of course, most people who take up the offer don't realize that after fees and payments, most of their earnings go to the brokers.

The cycle is hard to escape—being an illegal immigrant on a boat in the middle of the sea doesn't afford many options. Accounts from escaped refugees living in Bangkok paint gruesome pictures of boats that are run like slave ships, where fishermen must work 15 hours a day pulling on lines. Most men who worked on the boats say beatings and even killings are a regular part of life at sea, according to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP).

Many jump overboard out of desperation, despite being miles away from land, according to UNIAP. There have been reports of captains executing defectors in front of the whole crew as a scare tactic. There are also reports of men being thrown overboard if they're too tired or refuse to work. UNIAP studies suggest that almost 60 percent of human trafficking victims have witnessed a murder by their boat captain.

Life on shore is less violent, although still difficult. A refugee now living in Bangkok said he promised his broker the equivalent of $500 to be smuggled across the Burmese-Thai border, and he found himself working in a shrimp factory called Phatthana Seafood in Songkhla Province. His wage was only a few dollars each day. After fees for boarding, food, and immigration coverage, almost all of his earnings went to his broker.

This system known as debt bondage—where migrants pay off an impossible debt—has been called modern day slavery by the United Nations, and it plagues the Thai fishing industry.

At Phatthana, migrant laborers stopped working in mid-April 2012. Their strike was triggered by a new minimum wage law that was supposed to go into effect, but did not—their paychecks stayed the same. With the ensuing media attention, hundreds of workers started bringing up issues about Phatthana and its substandard working conditions. People said that if a worker tried to escape and was caught, he would be beaten by the broker in front of the broker's other clients. They complained of long work hours and deductions in their pay without reason, according to human trafficking experts at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

The refugee living in Bangkok, who asked to remain anonymous due to his immigration status, considers himself lucky that he was able to flee the factory two years ago. He found work at a hardware shop in a nearby village that paid him a fair wage, and he moved to Bangkok a year later. He says part of his income goes towards helping others at Phatthana escape.

Fishing is a $7 billion industry for Thailand, and the country ranks third in the world for exports, after China and Norway, according to the FAO. With so much money to be made and so little regulation, debt bondage and human trafficking have been a primary source of cheap labor for the fishing industry since the 1980s.

Although the government has given the issue some attention in recent years, human rights activists say the laws in place are ineffective and outdated. "There has been no preventative action from the Thai Government," says Phil Robertson, the Asia Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch. "The government has continuously failed in its responsibility to oversee [the fishing industry]."

In some ways, the problems are only getting worse. This summer, Thailand was expected to be given Tier 3 status—the lowest possible rating—in the U.S. State Department's report on human trafficking, but was granted a last minute exception by Hillary Clinton.

While there's optimism that the changing Burmese government will give citizens opportunities in their own country, there's little hope that it will seriously affect trafficking over the next few decades.

If change occurs in any area it would be in distribution, where international companies source the seafood from Thai factories and sell them to countries abroad. Robertson suggests that the number of trafficked migrants would be reduced if distributors stopped sourcing from factories connected with human trafficking.

Consumers are already taking a stance: A campaign for Walmart to adopt higher standards for where it sources seafood has collected almost 100,000 signatures. Although Walmart says it doesn't source from Phatthana Seafood, shipping records gathered from Change to Win, a U.S. labor federation, suggest a connection between the two companies.

Changing Landscapes

Over the past few decades, the way fish are caught has changed, the way fish are farmed has developed, and the environment itself has gone through cycles of health and harm depending on different practices.

If there's one thing constant about this process, it's that the Thai fishing industry changes when there's money to be made. Developing countries like Thailand make up 80 percent of seafood exports worldwide—the global fishing industry employs almost 50 million people, and it's hard not to put economic progress in front of environmental sustainability for these countries.

But resource depletion, water pollution, and dangerous labor conditions could threaten a region's entire fish economy. A balance must be struck if developing countries want to reach their potential.

As for Thailand, a country that is slowly starting to enter the developed world, fishing peaked a few years ago. According to the FAO, Thailand has been on a downward trend in marine fishing since at least 2009. As people move to cities for higher paying jobs and port towns are converted into tourist destinations, the number of fishermen is shrinking. And this might be the blessing Thailand's waters have been waiting for.


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