Thailand's multi-billion-dollar seafood sector came under scrutiny after investigations showed trafficking and exploitative practices against workers on fishing boats
(Fixes association name in paragraph 6)
By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Several thousand Thai fishermen protested outside the agriculture ministry on Tuesday over strict regulations aimed at combating illegal and unregulated fishing which they say are driving them out of business.
Thailand, one of the world's largest seafood exporters, began cracking down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing four years ago after the European Union threatened to ban its seafood exports.
The EU lifted its threat in January this year, citing a "major upgrade" in Thai governance, but the reforms enacted by Bangkok in 2015 have hurt the country's fishing sector.
The protesters, drawn from 22 provinces around the country, turned the area in front of the ministry into a camp site with makeshift shelters under colorful umbrellas and took turns to air their grievances over megaphones.
"We've lost everything in the past five years. If we don't get any answers today, we won't leave," said one fisherman from the southern province of Rayong.
Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT), said the reforms and costly fines had caused many fishermen to lose their jobs.
"If the government won't fix the problems for us, we'll just oust them," Mongkol told Reuters.
Earlier this month, fishing associations drew up a list of demands that included a relaxation of the restrictions and the allocation of special funds to help the industry.
Alongkorn Ponlaboot, an adviser to the agriculture minister, told the gathering on Tuesday that a loan of 10.3 billion baht ($341 million) for the fishermen and a scheme worth 7.1 billion baht ($235 million) to buy out 2,700 ships were awaiting cabinet approval.
But he said amending the law was complicated because it could affect Thailand's commitment to combat IUU fishing, and that consultations were ongoing.
Thailand's multi-billion-dollar seafood sector came under scrutiny after investigations showed trafficking and exploitative practices against workers on fishing boats.
International organisations have welcomed Thailand's reform of its fishing sector, saying it has bolstered traceability and oversight on transshipments at sea and curbed forced labour.
Steve Trent, executive director of London-based Environmental Justice Foundation, urged Thailand to entrench the reform rather than water it down.
"If NFAT gets its ways and the reforms are rolled back, it will be a return to the dark days of violence, forced labour, more illegal and unsustainable fishing," Trent told Reuters.
Alongkorn told Reuters the government would not do anything that would negatively affect Thailand's IUU status.
"We have an obligation and we don't want to turn back. That's the bottom line."
($1 = 30.1900 baht)
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat Editing by Gareth Jones)
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