Analysis: China’s fishing fleet is vacuuming the oceans

“China’s leaders see distant water fleets as a way to project presence around the world,” said Tabitha Mallory, CEO of the consulting firm China Ocean Institute.

By Judith Bergman, Gatestone Institute

Communist China seems increasingly to be depleting the world’s oceans of marine life.

The country has by far the world’s largest fishing fleet of anywhere between 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats — accounting for nearly half of the world’s fishing activity — approximately 17,000 of which belong to its distant-water fishing fleet.

The growth has been made possible by enormous state subsidies. In 2012, for instance, the Chinese state poured $3.2 billion in subsidies into its fishing sector, most of it for fuel.

However, according to a report from 2012, “government support for the fishing and aquaculture sector could be as much as CNY 500 billion (USD 80.2 billion, EUR 61.7 billion) when regional and national subsidies for rural-based fish farmers are taken into account.”

As noted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), many industrialized countries, having depleted their domestic waters, go distant-water fishing in the territorial waters of low-income countries, but China’s distant-water fleet is by far the largest in the world. The ODI also noted that ownership and operational control of China’s fleet is both “complex and opaque.”

“China’s leaders see distant water fleets as a way to project presence around the world,” Tabitha Mallory, CEO of the consulting firm China Ocean Institute and affiliate professor at the University of Washington told Axios. “The aim is to be present all over the world’s oceans so that they can direct the outcomes of international agreements that cover maritime resources.”

Chinese fishing vessels deplete the stocks of countries not only in Southeast Asia, but also as far away as the Persian Gulf, South America, West Africa and the South Pacific. Their predatory and unsustainable fishing methods are endangering not only marine life, but also the livelihoods of local fishermen.

China is considered to be the largest perpetrator of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) in the world, as well as the largest subsidizer in the world of such practices.

Admiral Karl Schultz, the Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, has warned:

“IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect a deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.”

The consequences are sometimes grisly. One of the most shocking examples is that of North Korea: In the past five years, more than 500 abandoned wooden fishing boats, often with skeletons of starved North Korean fishermen aboard, have washed up on the shores of Japan.

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For years the cause was unknown, until it was found out that the likely reason was that “an armada” of Chinese industrial boats fish illegally in North Korean waters, forcing the locals to venture further from shore, where some of them die in a vain search for fish and eventually wash up in Japan. It is estimated that China’s fishing vessels have depleted squid stocks in North Korean waters by 70%.

In Iran, pro-reform media reported in July that Chinese vessels were “illegally cleaning out fish resources in the Persian Gulf” while “Iranian fishermen are forced to pay ten thousand dollars in bribes to Somalian pirates to let them fish on the African shores.”

Most of the fishing vessels in China’s fleet are trawlers. “Fishing by trawling method sweeps out the seafloor in the south, and annihilates its resources,” one representative of the fishermen said. According to a July 2020 report from Iran News Update:

“In recent years, this horrible issue [activity of Chinese trawlers] has contributed to a two-third decrease in Iran’s aquatic reserves and sounded alarms about the annihilation of the country’s marine ecosystem. Moreover, this kind of fishing negatively affected Iranian fishers’ businesses…”

Iran has reportedly been leasing out its territorial waters in the Persian Gulf to Chinese industrial ships for more than a decade. In 2018, the Deputy for Port Affairs of the Ports and Maritime Organization of Iran, Mohammad Ali Hassanzadeh, admitted that Chinese ships were “operating under a ‘long-term lease’ for fishing at a depth of 200 meters (roughly 656 feet) in Iranian waters.”

In a number of West African countries — Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and others — Chinese trawlers have for years “taken advantage of poor governance, corruption and the inability of these governments to enforce fishing regulations” according to the China-Africa project.

“Today, the Chinese vessels largely operate beyond government control, prompting an increasingly serious environmental crisis brought on from over-fishing that also endangers local coastal communities who depend on these waters for their livelihoods.”

In July 2020, six Chinese super-trawlers arrived in Liberia, capable of capturing 12,000 tons of fish — nearly twice the nation’s sustainable catch.

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A March 24 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation said that Chinese state companies have been “fleecing” Ghana’s ocean resources “by camouflaging as locally incorporated trawler owners that pay lower license fees and penalties for engaging in illegal fishing activities,” denying the country millions of dollars in license revenues.

“The report details how the Chinese control up to 93 percent of the trawl vessels in Ghana, a country that is now losing between USD 14.4 million and USD 23.7 million (EUR 12.1 million and EUR 20 million) annually in fishing license fees and fines from trawlers.”

In South America, Chinese predatory fishing is now so critical that in March, Argentina announced the creation of a Maritime Joint Command to combat the predatory fishing practices of foreign vessels. According to Diálogo, a military magazine published by the U.S. Southern Command:

“Each year, a fleet of foreign fishing vessels, mostly from China, sails along South American coasts, threatening the marine resources in the region. According to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation, the involvement of Chinese vessels in squid fishing in the region has grown steadily over the last two decades.”

In June, a huge Chinese fishing fleet of 300 vessels arrived in the area around Ecuador’s environmentally protected Galapagos Marine Reserve. The Chinese vessels, which stayed in the area for a month, accounted for “99% of visible fishing just outside the [Galapagos] archipelago’s waters between 13 July and 13 August,” a report found.

They were fishing for squid, which are essential to the unique Galapagos seals and sharks, and for commercial fish that otherwise contribute to the local economy. In 2017, Ecuador jailed 20 Chinese fishermen for capturing 6,600 sharks off the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The sharks are used in shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy.

In the South Pacific, according to two former U.S. officials, “illegal, unregulated fishing by Chinese vessels has become common in American Samoa and Guam and as far east as Hawaii.”

The overfishing is so detrimental to the locals that a tuna cannery on American Samoa, one of the island’s largest employers, had to suspend operations temporarily due to a lack of fish.

The Chinese fishing fleet, however, is about much more than fishing. In an August 2020 report published by the Yale School of the Environment, investigative reporter Ian Urbina wrote:

“Against the backdrop of China’s larger geo-political aspirations, the country’s commercial fishermen often serve as de-facto paramilitary personnel whose activities the Chinese government can frame as private actions. Under a civilian guise, this ostensibly private armada helps assert territorial domination, especially pushing back fishermen or governments that challenge China’s sovereignty claims that encompass nearly all of the South China Sea.”

China’s use of fishing boats to assert its power and territorial claims was on full display in March, when a fleet of more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels swarmed and anchored at the Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. The reef lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In 2018, more than 90 Chinese fishing vessels anchored within miles of the Philippine Thitu Island, after the Philippine government began work on the island’s infrastructure.

In September, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report, “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing Strategic Outlook,” which announced “the U.S. Coast Guard’s commitment to leading a global effort to combat illegal exploitation of the ocean’s fish stocks and protect our national interests.”

The report stressed the need to “(1) Promote targeted, effective, intelligence-driven enforcement operations, (2) Counter predatory and irresponsible State behavior, and (3) Expand multilateral fisheries enforcement cooperation” and urged that a coalition of intergovernmental and international partners would be necessary.

In April, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy launched a joint mission in the Western and Central Pacific to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU fishing) and boost regional security.

In February, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, recommended that the U.S. “consider leading a multilateral coalition with South American nations to push back against China’s illegal fishing and trade practices.”

Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.