The commercial fishing industry in parts of Asia has had a lot of bad press in recent years over oppressive working conditions and even slavery of crews. An article in the Guardian newspaper documented some horrific accounts of abuse in Thailand’s distant water fleet fishing in Indonesian waters. Some of those accusations proved credible and pressure came from western nations to clean up the mess.
After years of “we-are-examining-the-situation” side-stepping that led to a yellow-card designation by some western nations, the Thai government brought in a set of new regulations intended to improve working conditions on Thai boats. These include closer monitoring of temporary foreign workers as well as increased regulation of fishing gear and working conditions.
Some of the changes are to the advantage of crews while vessel owners see others as unhelpful restriction on their operations. This has led to some shutting down of operations but does not seem to be leading to a rethink of the labour-intensive fishing methods prevalent in Thailand.
In the years since World War II many nations have developed labour-saving designs that have let to highly efficient small boat fleets. Much of this evolution has been dependent on the use of hydraulics and smaller, more powerful diesel engines.
The typical 20- to 25-metre purse seiner in the Gulf of Thailand employs over 20 crewmembers. A mechanical capstan purses the net. The crew, with minimal powered assistance, hauls the net by hand. Handling, icing and delivering the fish is done by hand.
To equip the current fleet with efficient winches and hydraulic power blocks could be done and would reduce the crews somewhat. However, just as in the rest of the world, quality wood for boat building is becoming scarce. The teak is long gone and the takien, that most boats are built with, is becoming hard to get and expensive.
In Vietnam, when the government launched a fleet expansion program, a number of variation of wood and fibreglass were tried. The most successful were at least two yards that designed a hull form to meet the needs of the fishermen. Central governments in many countries talk about and even implement fleet renewal programs. Many fail through bureaucratic and corporate flim flam. But even leaving that aside, there are some real challenges.
One of the aims of a fleet renewal program should be to provide quality employment to locals. For discussion purposes lets start with the idea of 50 per cent of the ex-vessel value of the catch, after deductions for grub and fuel, going to the skipper and crew. I haven’t just pulled this number out of the air, that is how I was paid on a Canadian seiner years ago. We had five or six crew and good hydraulics and electronics.
A formula similar to the 50/50 split, as currently used in most western nations, would pay fishermen a share of the catch, to attract citizens from the country whose fish are being caught. That is how it works in much of the world. Such pay is dependent on small crews that are, in turn, dependent on modern boats with effective hydraulics.
There are many examples of boats that meet these criteria from Alaska Limit seiners to Japanese longliners and trawlers. To simply bring these boats to Thai waters may not be workable. But a naval architect meeting in consultation with experienced skipper/vessel owners would be able to tune one or more designs to suit the specifics of the local fishery.
Fibreglass is the logical choice of the three modern materials of aluminium, steel, and fibreglass. Once a model boat has been built and tested in real working conditions, a mould can be taken and production can proceed. Again Vietnam has shown the way on this.
The mass construction of fibreglass boats, built to an international classification standard, would reduce the cost of the boat. In time, others, especially owner operators, would make modifications to improve efficiency. Just as owners have been quick to add expensive sonar to their electronics when it can pay for itself, other modifications will be added as they are justified.
Basing the fleet development on a 50/50 split between crew and boat assures that there will be enough earnings to attract locals to the fishery. The chance to “hit the jackpot” should never be underestimated in attracting crew. Skippers soon get a good reputation for fairness and being “fishy” in a good way.
Similarly, working conditions will, within reason, self regulate. No one minds working 14 and 16 or more hours a day when they are making money. The skipper who works his crew hard for poor returns will soon find it hard to get crew. There is a culture in a healthy fishery that shore-based bureaucrats seldom understand.
None of this negates safety on a newly developed fleet. EPIRBS, AIS, inflatable life rafts, fire suppression, should all be mandatory. Yes, they add cost to the boat. Likely enough cost that some owners of old poorly outfitted boats will drop out of the industry. This will give the added bonus of fleet reduction.
The irony of the threatened boycott of Thai seafood exports over treatment of fishermen, is that most of the value of Thai seafood exports comes from farmed shrimp and processed tuna caught by other nations. As for the claim that “Thais are too lazy to go fishing”, that is put to the test when one talks to the crew on a Malaysian anchovy seiner. It turns out that they are mostly Thais on temporary foreign worker permits. Asked why they are not working on a boat in Thailand, the answer is simple: “The pay is better here.”
In response to the argument that the Myanmar and Cambodian fishermen need the job, why not let the ASEAN people unite on a common policy that would see all national fisheries employ their own citizens to catch the fish in their national waters?
Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.