In recent weeks my newsfeeds have been abuzz with conversations, reviews and watch parties for the new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. I have several issues with the film, notably on the distinction between commercial on small-scale fisheries, the debate on marine plastics campaigns, and several spurious claims made throughout the film. I feel that many great articles and analyses have already addressed many of these concerns and that it would be more constructive to lend a different perspective to the ongoing conversation.
One area that the film does touch on, and that is of crucial importance to how we reform our global commercial fisheries, is the issue of subsidies.
What are fisheries subsidies?
Globally, government-issued fisheries subsidies are estimated to total USD 35.4 billion as of 2018. Some forms of these subsidies are beneficial or constructive for the conservation of ocean resources, for example those that set up marine protected areas and funding marine research. However, only 30 per cent of global subsidies could be classified as beneficial or constructive in this way. Most subsidies paid out to commercial fishing boat operators and companies (62% in 2018) are capacity-enhancing subsidies: loans to help build boats or buy new fishing equipment, fuel subsidies, or tax rebates.
These subsidies are often introduced in the very early stages of fishing industry development and are designed to foster innovation and growth in fledgling fisheries. However, across the globe many such subsidies have quickly become actively harmful to fisheries development and now merely prop up failing or unprofitable fishing vessels while marine resources are depleted, human rights of fishing boat crews are degraded and ultimately taxpayers are left to foot the bill.
Thailand is ranked 7th in the world for fisheries subsidies
Thailand ranks 7th in the world, behind China, the EU and the USA, for fisheries subsidies, totalling 36 billion baht or USD 1.15 billion in 2018. More than 93 per cent of this were capacity-enhancing subsidies such as boat purchases or construction, tax rebates or fuel discounts. These subsidies have over the years facilitated Thailand’s fishing fleet expansion from just 99 powered trawlers in 1961 to almost 20,000 registered vessels in 2012. At the same time, Thailand’s seas were plundered indiscriminately with the amount of seafood being caught per hour of fishing (measured in catch per unit effort) falling by 86 and 96 per cent respectively across the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand between the 1960s and 2017.
Just USD74 million (6%) of Thailand’s total fisheries subsidies budget in 2018 was classified as “beneficial”.
Propped up on lucrative fuel discounts and other capacity-enhancing subsidies, Thailand’s commercial fleet were fishing for the sake of fishing. Vessels were fishing ever further from shore and for ever longer periods in search of fresh fish stocks. Inevitably this also lead to vessels ‘fishing down the food web’, with increasing proportions of landed fish being classified as ‘trash fish’ (ปลาเป็ด) – a putrefying mixture of low-value fish and crustaceans not fit for human consumption.
Previous investigations by the Environmental Justice Foundation have found that a trawler might bring in 200-280 kg of trash fish – worth between USD42 to USD59 (1,300 – 1,800 baht) over six hours of trawling. Even if the crew were to set the nets three or four times per day this market price would not even cover the day’s fuel costs – approximately USD920 per day. Such an unsustainable business model has led to Thailand’s fishing industry earning roughly half of what it would if it were managed sustainably and seafood species were able to grow to a more economically viable size. Thai activists for example have estimated that if 1 kg of 1,000 baby mackerel worth 100 baht were left to mature rather than being caught prematurely they could be worth 7,000 to 8,000 baht after just 6-7 months.
Linkage between overfishing, illegal fishing and human rights abuses
As the Environmental Justice Foundation, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch and news outlets such as the Guardian and Associated Press have shown, this uncontrolled growth in the Thai commercial sector, the subsequent ‘race to the bottom’ of the food web and a chronic lack of profitability across the sector, all were contributing factors for severe human rights abuses to proliferate. Labour costs rank second only to fuel expenditure on Thai fishing boats so in terms of cost savings, it is unfortunately where unscrupulous vessel operators will turn first.
Over the years, reduced wages, longer and longer working hours lead to a vicious cycle of worsening labour abuses. Between 2013 and 2016, numerous reports from these groups have been published that document the rampant physical abuse, forced labour and even murder on board Thai boats, all in the pursuit of trash fish that barely scrapes a value of USD100 per tonne.
What can be done?
It is important to acknowledge that, although Thailand does have a troubled past when it comes to fisheries in terms of illegal fishing and labour abuses, there has been a great deal of reform over the last five years to rectify decades of neglect. This has included the installation of vessel monitoring technologies on over 5,000 commercial boats, introducing much-needed fisheries legislation as well as vessel decommissioning and port-side vessel inspections. This is not to say that there is still much that can be done in Thailand to further enhance fisheries sustainability and labour standards in fishing, however this topic can be explored at another time.
More attention needs to be paid to rebalancing the current 93 per cent of Thai fisheries subsidies being paid as capacity enhancements. Thai agricultural scientist Kwankamol Klinsresuk said in 1996 of Thailand that “if current fishing effort is maintained at this level…there is a loss due to the cost of fishing being greater than fishing revenues.” He estimated the loss at the equivalent of USD30 million per year. If this investment of taxpayer funds could be redirected towards more beneficial subsidies such as creating new marine protected areas or improving enforcement of existing ones then this would already be a huge step forwards in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the sector.