Supplies of fresh seafood have been disrupted in Thailand since fishing boat operators grounded their fleets in response to new rules against illegal and unreported fishing that kicked in this week.
But the government, trying to avert an import ban from the European Union, has resisted calls from fishing vessel owners to extend the deadline. As a result, the prices of some types of seafood at local markets have risen 20 per cent or more.
On television last night, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told people to avoid seafood if it got too expensive. "Leave it to the wealthy," he said.
Thailand is the world's third-largest exporter of seafood products, and Singapore's sixth-largest supplier of fish. Last year, it shipped more than €600 million (S$898 million) worth to the EU. It is this market that Thailand stands to lose if its efforts to tackle illegal fishing do not meet EU sustainability standards within six months of being issued a "yellow card" in April.
For years, human rights groups have decried the lax oversight that allows rogue operators to make migrant labourers work under slave- like conditions. Many Thai fishing boats are also unregistered.
NOT ENOUGH TIME
We are fully willing to cooperate, but how can we solve a 30-, 40-year-old problem at such short notice?''
MR MONGKOL SUKCHAROENKANA, vice-president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand
According to British newspaper The Guardian, the EU's environment, maritime affairs and fisheries commissioner Karmenu Vella told reporters in April: "There are no controls whatsoever and no efforts being made... and illegal fishing is almost totally allowed."
The new rules require all boats to have licences, approved equipment, detailed logs as well as tracking systems to prevent overfishing and also stem the use of trafficked labour. Errant operators face up to three years in jail and a 300,000 baht (S$12,000) fine.
Some fishing boat owners, who say the new rules are too difficult to meet in such a short time span, have simply refused to operate.
Up to 2,000 of the 5,600 commercial fishing vessels in Thailand still "may not meet the requirements on the proper use of fishing gear", Dr Waraporn Prompoj, deputy director-general of the Department of Fisheries, told The Straits Times.
Mr Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, vice-president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, estimates that 5,000 boats - which collectively bring in about one million tonnes of catch every year - are now idle. He stressed that this was not a strike. "We are fully willing to cooperate, but how can we solve a 30-, 40-year-old problem at such short notice?" he said.
The industry is staffed by large numbers of migrant workers, he pointed out, but it was something the government failed to take into account by requiring that ship captains and mechanics be Thais.
"It's rare to find Thais in these jobs, so we see no way out of the problem," he said. "Since the government does not agree, the only way out for us is to stop."
But Bangkok is not budging. "It's the responsibility of the fishing vessel owners," said Dr Waraporn. "They have to find a captain who is Thai." The government is, however, sending mobile teams to coastal provinces to speed up the registration of ship captains and mechanics. It is also meeting fishermen to clarify the new rules, so that those who meet the criteria can head out to sea with peace of mind.
"This is hard for the government and hard for the fishermen as well," said Dr Waraporn, adding that they "have to go through this difficult period together".
Thailand's biggest exporters - which do not rely extensively on local catch - do not expect much impact on their businesses yet.
"We are not too worried about it," said Ms Sasinan Allmand, who heads corporate communications at Thai Union Frozen Products, one of the world's largest seafood exporters. "We have enough stocks right now, and we import from other countries too."
Mr Poj Aramwattananont, president of canned tuna company Sea Value and the Thai Frozen Foods Association, said the greatest impact would probably be on surimi used in fishballs, or fishmeal. Even then, the shortage should last no more than one month, he said.
Leading restaurant chains interviewed by local media say they have not been affected so far as they have many suppliers and buy large quantities in advance.
Thai media yesterday reported that wholesalers have started selling their frozen stocks to make up for less fresh fish.
And, while prices have risen 20 per cent or more, they may help secure the industry's long-term prospects, said Ms Sasinan.
"For us, if (fishing) is not done the right way, when someone is suffering because of this illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the price does not reflect the real cost," she said. "If the cost has to increase, then so be it."