Fishy business: Thai communities threatened by the seafood industry

Food & livelihoods, Food security, Livelihoods

In Thailand intensive fishing by big business has caused a stark decline in seafood stocks which is threatening food security and the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable communities. Here, Werapong Prapha, Gendered Enterprise Development and Private Sector Coordinator, explains how a new community led social enterprise is promoting responsible fishing practices, respecting the rights of fishing communities, and the environment.

The recent slave labour scandal exposed in Thailand’s fishing boats has put the national and international spotlights on Thailand’s fishing and food-processing industry. NGOs, retailers and consumers are putting pressure on companies to demonstrate a more responsible and sustainable supply chain. Thai companies can no longer disregard the fact that their food production is part of the larger and more dynamic
systems with extensive consequences – and urgent calls for action to change business practices can no longer be ignored.

As a result, major food companies in Thailand are under pressure to examine and change their sourcing policies to address these labour concerns. However, for years, seafood businesses also faced criticisms from environmentalists and local NGOs in Thailand for their involvement in a supply chain that has incentivized overfishing. Although this issue has seldom been picked up by the global media, it has significant consequences for the ecological system, as well as consumers in Thailand and abroad.…declining fish stocks present a direct threat to food security in Thailand

A research report commissioned by Oxfam in Thailand last year has indicated that the use of fishmeal as the main protein ingredient for animal feed has contributed significantly to overfishing in Thailand. The report cited official statistics that in 1961, Thai fishing boats were able to catch on average nearly 300 kilograms of seafood per hour but by 2010, this had dropped to just 18 kilograms. Several factors have contributed to this decline, but
the use of devastating and illegal fishing techniques, such as deep sea trawling, has been identified as the major cause of destruction.

The report further suggests that ‘trash fish’ – or in other words, undesirable or unpalatable fish – often made up of over 62 percent of total catch, while only about 38 percent is seafood that can be sold for commercial purposes. In Thailand, this ‘trash fish’ also includes under-grown fish and other sea life creatures, which are being used to produce fishmeal.

The declining fish stocks present a direct threat to food security in Thailand, particularly for poor and vulnerable fishing communities around the coastal areas. Local fishers have to stay out at sea for a  longer period of time, for fewer catches. Internationally, there is evidence to suggest that the situation in the fishing industry has contributed to an increase in other social problems (see these two reports from the FAO on social
and poverty alleviation in relation to small scale fishing). In the Thai context, our local partner, the Thai Sea Watch Association (TSWA), reports this negative spillover impacts on rising unemployment, fishermen getting into informal debts and drug use.

Fisherfolk enterprise managers at the impact investors forum, showcasing their community-based social enterprises to potential impact investors. Credit: Werapong Prapha/Oxfam Irresponsible fishery has multiple effects – both at the human and environmental level. The effects do not stop at just the fishing communities, but they also travel up the value chain and impact on the lives of consumers and compromise our future
generation’s ability to meet their own needs. Thus, Oxfam in Thailand has been engaging with TSWA to initiate a social enterprise, owned and managed by local fishing communities to connect safe, responsible and sustainable seafood directly with urban consumers. 

The ‘Fisherfolk‘ brand has been established in order to promote good and responsible fishing practices that respect the rights of communities, small-scale producers, the environment and ultimately consumers.

The brand serves as a pilot model to promote market-based solutions to poverty and inequality reduction in Thailand and aims to demonstrate to large businesses that inclusive capitalism is possible. This year, Oxfam in Thailand and TSWA will be working together to publicly campaign on sustainable seafood consumption, highlighting the links between seafood consumption and its consequences on the communities and the natural environment.

For Oxfam, the broader issues around seafood are too serious to ignore. As a result, Oxfam is engaging in the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force, an international industry alliance consisting of leading retailers, manufacturers, government and NGO’s. In this initiative, Oxfam will advocate for the highest standards of accountability, verification and transparency so that Thailand’s
supply chain is free from illegal and forced labour. In this role, Oxfam hopes to represent the voice and concerns of communities in the Task Force. Through this initiative and more broadly, Oxfam will continue to monitor the impacts of private sector activity on Thailand’s local fishing communities and advocate for progress.

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1. Women sorting out fish at the pier to ensure the high quality products. Credit: Werapong Prapha/Oxfam
2. Fisherfolk enterprise managers at the impact investors forum, showcasing their community-based social enterprises to potential impact investors. Credit: Werapong Prapha/Oxfam

Author: Werapong Prapha
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.