Southeast Asia Targets Seafood Export Boom At The Expense Of Sustainability

Governments in Southeast Asia are dismantling crucial safeguards governing their fishing fleets, jeopardizing the progress made in controlling illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Governments in Southeast Asia are dismantling crucial safeguards governing their fishing fleets, jeopardizing the progress made in controlling illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This sector, valued in the billions for export, witnesses daily competition among fleets from various countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, providing a constant supply for the global demand for fish and seafood.

Despite recent efforts to establish controls that signalled a commitment to combating overfishing and labour abuses, these measures are now being gradually rolled back due to conflicting priorities, including the need for employment, food security, economic interests, and environmental concerns.

In 2020, Indonesia lifted a prohibition on transhipment, the practice of transferring catch and crew between boats at sea, beyond the oversight of labour and fisheries investigators. This move exposes trafficked crew to potential resale on other vessels during transhipment, and it allows for the mixing or concealment of catch to evade inspection and accurate reporting upon returning to shore.

According to Parid Ridwanuddin, an advocate for the Indonesian environmental group Walhi, the government is essentially facilitating large corporate vessels to exploit tuna and other resources in Indonesian waters.

This year, Jakarta implemented a decree mandating foreign investors to pay a government fee for fishing in its waters. Approximately 1 million tonnes of catch, valued at US$6.4 billion according to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, were exported last year, with the primary destinations being the United States, China, and Japan.

According to Parid, the government should prioritize policies that focus on restoring the health of Indonesia’s waters instead.

The removal of the law has resulted in overfishing, compelling small-scale and traditional fishermen in Indonesia to contend with large-scale foreign vessels in waters already depleted due to climate change effects like acidification. Vietnam ranked as the third-largest global exporter of fish and seafood, received a ‘yellow card’ from the European Union in 2017 for IUU violations, including inadequate tracking of sea stocks, catches, and vessel registration, jeopardizing its exports to the EU.

Despite this, the value of Vietnam’s fisheries has risen as new consumers have offset any decline in demand from the EU. The Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers in Vietnam anticipates a turnover of US$8.27 billion this year, even though Vietnamese boats are frequently among the worst offenders in IUU activities, engaging in illegal fishing across waters from Indonesia to the Indian Ocean.

In Dubai, global leaders convened for Cop28, the UN climate change summit, to address the climate crisis. The oceans, which play a crucial role in climate regulation, have absorbed over 90% of excess heat and nearly 30% of carbon dioxide resulting from human activities. The summit introduced an Oceans Declaration, advocating for in-depth research on the impact of greenhouse gases on ocean warming and proposing solutions to address issues like overfishing, habitat destruction, and marine pollution.

Thailand has been a regional leader in addressing illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in recent years, responding to scandals of slavery at sea and widespread overfishing in 2015 that affected its extensive fishing fleets, ports, and processing facilities. Following human-trafficking allegations by the US State Department and an EU ‘yellow card,’ Thailand faced significant negative publicity concerning its fisheries.

Millions of dollars were invested in cleaning up Thailand’s fishing industry, with the country implementing rigorous inspections of catch and crews at ports and piers. As a result, the EU removed Thailand from a list of “warned countries” in 2019, acknowledging the nation’s efforts and leadership in regional anti-illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing measures during its tenure as the chair of ASEAN.

However, under the current government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who assumed office in August, there is a belief that the industry has been excessively regulated. The government is now advocating for the “unlocking” of the sector through a new Fisheries Act. Critics argue that this proposed legislation would significantly weaken controls, particularly those related to limiting crew days at sea and monitoring catch size and quantity.

The future outlook for marine stocks in Southeast Asia seems to be on a concerning path. At Kuala Lumpur’s Selayang wet market, the largest in the city, fishmongers note a decline in fish availability, coupled with unpredictable weather patterns and rising sea temperatures, further complicating the already precarious livelihoods of the region’s fishing communities.