Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ban reflects decline in stocks

Bangkok Post

The fishing ban against Thai fishermen by Cambodia's Koh Kong authorities last week might be seen as the start of a new series of political conflicts between the Thai and Cambodian governments.

A few medium-sized fishing trawlers lie at anchor in a Phuket port.

But experts from the local industry disagree, seeing the move as conventional practice for the Koh Kong authorities, without any political motivation.

As a way to raise concession fees, the island's authorities are trying to limit fishing activities, with reports already coming that officials are looking to raise the monthly concession fee from 60,000 baht to 80,000 baht per trawler. This could push the total expenses for fishing in these waters to more than 100,000 baht.

Part of the problem is depleted fish stocks in Thai waters as a result of rampant violations of regulations, leading many Thai fishermen to stray into the seas off neighbouring countries.

Another factor is the international reputation of Thai fishermen. Other countries think twice before allowing Thai fishing vessels to enter their waters for fear of losing their stocks to overfishing.

Reports that Thai fishermen have been caught encroaching in foreign waters have appeared quite often, in line with strong fishery exports that have brought revenue of more than 120 billion baht to the country, representing more than 13% of revenues earned by the agricultural sector.

"Overfishing and the use of vast nets and highly advanced tools has depleted the fish stocks in the Gulf of Thailand over the past decades, forcing Thai fishermen to explore new sources," said Mana Sripitak, chairman of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand.

Mana: Thai waters hit by overfishing

But as long as demand for seafood continues to grow, Thai fishermen have to head into the waters of neighbouring countries and sometimes as far away as the Middle East and Africa, he said.

He estimates that more than 800 big trawlers are now engaged in industrial-scale fishing in the waters of many countries, ranging from Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia and Malaysia to India, to Somalia and Benin in Africa.

More than 200 big trawlers are engaged in fishing joint ventures in Indonesia, 100 are in Malaysian waters, up to 300 are in Burma, and more than 100 trawlers are near Cambodia.

Some of these big trawlers with capacities of more than 100 tonnes are also fishing in the Middle East. These trawlers carry either the Thai flag or flags of partner countries to fish legally with operating licences and permissions from local authorities.

They catch a variety of marine produce such as tuna, Indo-Pacific mackerel, sardines and anchovies to meet the strong demand in markets such as Japan, Europe and the Middle East.

Most of the ships' catch is loaded and processed on the carriers, which are equipped with processing and cold-storage facilities, before being unloaded at the buying ports or brought back to Thailand, said Mr Mana.

In addition to overseas fishery operations, the Fisheries Department estimates that more than 5,000 commercial trawlers are fishing in local waters alongside small fishing boats, which help bring the total volume of marine fish being caught to 4 million tonnes a year.

But Mr Mana said the fishery volume has declined every year in line with the falling number of commercial boats, which have dropped from about 10,000 a few years ago.

The dwindling global fish supply could provoke international disputes unless the government enforces the law efficiently to ban the use of improper tools, while promoting sustainable fishery and improving the productivity of the Gulf of Thailand.

Banning fishing during the hatching season is essential, as is the promotion of more farming to help restore falling fish stock, he said.

Normally, the department bans fishing activity during the hatchery season from March to July but many fishermen have violated the ban.

In Japan, where raw fish is a popular food, falling marine production is also a serious problem.

The Japanese government has had to increase the fish supply by promoting more fish farming and releasing mature fish into the sea, he said.

The method not only increases fish stocks but also represents social responsibility, Mr Mana added.

In Thailand, Mr Mana says the department has increased crab output in the same way by processing only male crabs for local and export markets.

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