Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by China’s distant water fishing fleet (DWF) in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ) is robbing local communities of legitimate livelihoods, destroying economies and the environment. Be that as it may, more than seafood is at stake here as this phenomenon is also a manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical aspiration, and deemed a leading global maritime security threat. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
China leads the world in IUU fishing. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) generously subsidizes the world’s largest fishing fleet, including one of the largest DWF estimated at around 17,000, operating on the high seas and in other countries’ waters. Chinese vessels routinely violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of other coastal States, fish without permission, and overfish licensing agreements.
Chinese fishing vessels use two main methods to hide its involvement in illegal fishing. They go dark by turning off their AIS transponders, and they are registered to a flag of convenience to hide their Chinese origin. Also, the CCP has militarized part of its DWF, enabling it to act as a militia capable of projecting maritime power and advancing Chinese strategic interests.
Globally, economic losses from illegal fishing are estimated at tens of billions of dollars yearly, including lost tax revenue and onshore fishing industry jobs. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization evaluates that illegal fishing has an annual cost of up to US$23 billion. The majority of the world’s major marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or significantly depleted.
IUU fishing also undermines sovereignty, international agreements and fisheries conservation measures, and jeopardizes global food security, putting millions of people in the developing world at risk. However, it is the people from the local coastal communities, who rely on fishing for their survival, that suffer the most direct economic hardship. In Senegal and Mexico, Chinese DWF capture as much fish in one week as local boats catch in a year. Sometimes, the consequence is fatal as well.
For example, a July 2020 NBC News investigative report found that for years, China has been sending “a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing smaller North Korean boats” and forcing the poorly equipped fishermen to take ever-increasing desperate risks to venture further away from the safety of the shore. The dire consequence was that for 2019 alone, more than 150 dilapidated vessels containing “starved North Korean fishermen whose bodies have been reduced to skeletons”, washed ashore in Japan. There are more than 500 such cases in the past five years.
A global crisis in the making
Many of the fishing stocks within China’s shores have dwindled from overfishing and industrialization, which is why the Chinese government heavily subsidizes its fishermen, who sail the world in search of new grounds, often making illegal incursion into weaker countries’ EEZ where patrol is sparse as local governments lack the resources to police their waters, to satisfy both domestic demand and the international market. Moreover, Chinese fishing vessels are notoriously aggressive, known for ramming local fishing boats and even armed naval patrol vessels, and in some cases are followed and protected by Chinese Coast Guard ships.
In the maritime hotspot of South China Sea during mid-December 2019, 63 Chinese fishing vessels protected by an armed China coast guard vessel entered Indonesia’s EEZ off the coast of the northern Natuna islands. In a show of force, Indonesia sent four F-16 fighter jets along with navy ships and fishing boats to repel them. Within Japan’s EEZ off Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula, during the first nine months of 2020, 2,586 Chinese fishing vessels received warnings to leave the Yamatotai area in the Sea of Japan, nearly four times more than a year before.
China is the world’s biggest seafood exporter, its population accounts for more than a third of all fish consumption worldwide, and according to the IUU Fishing Index developed by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, China is also the worst among 152 countries in illegal fishing activities. With this combination, it is not hard to see the influence the CCP has on the global fisheries industry. Therefore, it is important that the affected international community stands together for the rule of law and insists that the CCP abides by the legal responsibility of being a global citizen and a flag state.
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