Case Studies of China’s Illegal Fishing, Degrading of Coastal Communities and Marine Life
by Prasad Nallapati* – 31st August 2020
South China Sea is not the only region facing China’s aggressive expansion, it has now spread to all the seas across the globe, raising alarm bells among littoral states and environmental groups. Encouraged and subsidized by the Communist regime, Chinese fishermen are bullying their way into distant seas, often venturing illegally into territorial waters of littoral states, with no concern to damage to marine life and coastal eco-systems. Friends or Foes, no one is spared, not even its all-weather Ironclad ally, Pakistan.
Chinese appetite for seafood is growing exponentially. The consumption of seafood has grown at a rate of 6 percent per annum since the year 1990, accounting for 34 percent of all the fish consumed globally by the year 2010. It is expected to grow by another 30 percent by 2030.
Domestic waters have long been depleted of much of their fish stocks. The Yangtze river used to account for 60 percent of the country’s total fish production until a few years ago, but it now yields less than 0.2 percent of the roughly 60 million tonnes consumed in a year. As it is no more viable for fishing, a 10-year ban is imposed from next year on fishing in some parts of the Yangtze river to protect its biodiversity, according to Vice Agricultural Minister Yu Kangzhen. Fishing was already restricted this year in 332 protection zones along the river. This will make more than 100,000 fishing vessels redundant while some 300,000 fishermen will have to be relocated, which is perhaps unprecedented.
This is one of the reasons for China’s aggressive territorial claims over the seas inside its arbitrarily drawn Nine-dash line of the South China Sea and its building of artificial islands there, while ignoring rightful claims of other coastal states. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines bore the brunt of this aggrandizement. Even Japan and Koreas in the East Sea are not spared. Illegal fishing of Asian waters constituted a third of the entire regional catch worth billions of dollars. As a result, roughly 50 percent of the South China sea fish stock were fully exploited, 25 percent over-exploited and the other 25 percent completely collapsed, thus aggravating maritime relations of the littoral states of the region.
With fish reserves fast dwindling in domestic waters as well as the South China Sea, which often led to more frequent violent clashes between the Chinese fishermen and those of other littoral states, Beijing has subsidized its fishermen to acquire modern trawlers to move farther out to sea, all the way as far as Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Atlantic, South Pacific and even Antarctica’s coasts where they encounter much less competition and local coast guard protection.
Distant-Water Fishing (DWF)-Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) Fishing
China’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet has grown to be the biggest in the world, with nearly 17,000 vessels – 1,000 of which use “flags of convenience” and are registered in other countries, according to Overseas Development Institute. The Chinese trawlers operate in big flotilla like clusters which look formidable and intimidating for local authorities of small and low-income littoral states. The Chinese fishing companies are also seen working as part of international crime syndicates, besides forming shell companies with local corrupt officials to evade regulations.
Fishing licenses, where available, have always been flouted to maximize marine catch in even prohibited zones. Using sonar systems, the Chinese trawlers are able to locate and follow schools of fish. During the nights, they even enter territorial waters and other prohibited zones by turning off their navigation systems to avoid detection. Prohibited nets and bottom trawling techniques are employed to scoop up everything through the bottom of the sea thus endangering protected species on the verge of extinction and ecological balance of the maritime environment.
Chinese flotillas include not only trawlers but also reefers, floating freezers, that pick up the cargo of fish from the trawlers mid-sea and carry it back to port of destination. Known as Transshipping, it is the lifeblood of the distant water fishing industry but is “illegal”. It allows fishing boats to stay at sea without returning to port for months because they can offload their catch to these reefers. The fishing vessels are also refueled and resupplied by the reefers, allowing them to return to more fishing. Transshipping fish mid-ocean presents a major loophole in monitoring illegal fishing activities. It allows entire fleets to operate out of sight, where they can hide illegal catches and operate without returning to port. “If ships turn off their satellite tracking it means no one sees what’s happening out at sea and it makes the high seas a black hole of fishing activity, said Sophie Cooke, Greenpeace’s lead investigator.
Major part of the Chinese fishing activity thus comes under “Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing category. China is not the only country indulging in IUU fishing, but it has by far the largest fleet involved in such activity. China ranked as the country most likely to contribute to IUU fishing, out of 152 countries in 2019, according to a survey. The IUU Fish index measured countries on 40 indicators, with China scoring poorly on many of them, both as a flag state (scoring poorly on indicators relating to IUU fishing), and as a port state (with too little monitoring in China’s ports also leading to IUU-fishing issues). Chinese illegal fishing is estimated to have caused over 50 percent of reduced catch for local fishermen in Persian Gulf, more than 70 percent in the African coasts and a substantial damage to protected zones, such as Galapagos in the southern Pacific.
Many African countries, South American nations and maritime environmental organizations have launched serious protests and even called upon the international community to firmly stand against China and stop awarding any fishing licenses to its trawlers. As a result, Beijing is forced to cancel subsidies worth US $ 111.6 million for some 264 of its vessels caught fishing illegally. This number is insignificant compared to China’s huge distant water fishing fleet of some 17,000, most of which indulge in IUU fishing. China pays only lip service to such protests as there is no organized united front to oppose such international crime on high seas.
The following are some of the case studies of China’s IUU fishing from each of the maritime zones that came to the notice of the regulatory authorities of various littoral states and environmental organizations. This is not an exhaustive list but only representational cases, which gives the extent of China’s bullying and thuggery across the oceans.
Case Studies from South China Sea and East Sea
In a latest incident in North Korean waters on August 11 this year, Pyongyang’s patrol boat opened fire on a Chinese vessel killing three of its fishermen. About a dozen Chinese boats were fishing in the vicinity and they quickly towed away the affected vessel out of the North Korean waters. The incident happened off the North Korean west coast, near Haeju and Ongjin county of the South Hwanghae province. Chinese vessels usually bribe North Korean authorities for a free ride in their waters. But lately, these relations soured due to increased brazenness of the Chinese vessels to defy their patrol boats and latter’s response. Earlier in the month of June, an empty Chinese fishing boat was discovered in waters near Dandong, with bloodstained footprints and a piece of human ear. Chinese concluded it was an act of North Korean coast guard but appear to keep it under wrap for fear of it being leaked out.
Global Fishing Watch (GFW) published a report on July 22, 2020, according to which more than 900 vessels of Chinese origin fished illegally in the North Korean waters in 2017 and 700 in 2018. They are estimated to have caught during this period more than 160,000 metric tons of squid worth more than $ 440 million. “The scale of the fleet involved in this illegal fishing is about one-third the size of China entire distant-water fishing fleet. It is the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by vessels originating from one country operating in another nation’s waters,” said Jaeyoon Park, a senior data scientist of the GFW. The Chinese trawlers have rendered some 3,000 North Korean traditional fishing boats useless, resulting in loss of lives and livelihood to a large fishermen community, says the report of the journal of Science Advances.
Chinese vessels also posed a serious threat to squid stocks in East Sea with catches in the territorial waters of Japan and South Korea declining by about 80% since 2003, according to another study.
The South China Sea littoral states, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, have long been victims of the Chinese belligerence which led to fast depletion of the local fish catch. In December last year, dozens of Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by their coast guard ships, entered the Indonesian waters of the Natuna sea. It took several days for Indonesian navy and fighter jets to drive them out.
Case Studies from Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean
A fleet of 20 Chinese deep-sea trawlers arrived in Pakistani waters off the Sindh and Baluchistan coasts in the Arabian sea in the first week of August this year. They have permits for fishing, but local fishermen complained that they these vessels threaten their livelihoods due to their indiscriminate fishing practices. Pakistani authorities have long ignored Chinese damaging fishing activities in its waters due to their strategic all-weather ironclad friendship and Beijing’s massive investments in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project including the Gwadar deep-sea port. This year, however, the Chinese are facing widespread protests from local fishermen, led by Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). Fishermen from Gwadar port area have also joined the protests against the presence of Chinese vessels. They said that fish stocks in their coastal areas have already declined by more than 72 percent last year due to uncontrolled fishing. The issue was raised in the National Assembly as well by Aslam Bhootani who represents Gwadar Assembly constituency.
Sri Lanka had also long been issuing licenses to Chinese trawlers to use Dikkowita fishing harbour, north of Colombo, and fish in the island’s international waters of the Indian Ocean. These vessels were also permitted to fly the Sri Lankan flag while engaged in the fishing activities. Local fishermen unions however claimed that the Chinese vessels were also seen fishing inside the country’s EEZ area, as the island government had little leverage to prevent them to do so due to their relationship. As a result, the Chinese deep-sea trawlers had almost swept the Indian Ocean clean. This had a serious impact on fish stocks of Indian waters, particularly its rich tuna fish resources. The licensing system may have been restricted by the previous Sirisena government.
Case Studies from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans
In a bizarre intimidating appearance, a total of 340 vessels of Chinese fishing fleet were sighted fishing in the first week of August this year near the protected waters off the Galapagos Islands. There were 260 vessels a month before. The flotilla looked like a township in the night. The islands are part of the area that was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978. Each of these vessels can hold up to 1,000 tonnes of catch. The Chinese trawlers have been coming to the area every year during the summer months since 1978, but the size of the fleet this year was unprecedented. Although fishing in international waters is not illegal per se, the vessels enter into these protected areas under the cover of darkness by shutting off their GPS equipment. They also take advantage of the abundant marine species that spill over from the Galapagos and cross into the unprotected waters.
The marine reserve is a place of very great productivity, high biomass but also biodiversity. “The longline fishing technique used by the fleet catch not only big fish like tuna, but also sharks, including endangered species of hammerhead shark, rays, giant tortoises and marine mammals like sea lions and dolphins. “This is not fishing any more, it is simply destroying the resources of our oceans,” says Green, co-founder and director of the Galápagos Whale Shark Project. “We should ask whether any nation on this planet has the right to destroy what is common ground.”
Roque Sevilla, a former mayor of Quito in Ecuador, who is leading a team in charge of designing a “protection strategy” for the islands, said the Chinese fleet practices “indiscriminate fishing – regardless of species or age – which is causing a serious deterioration of the quality of fauna … in our seas.”
The Galapagos Islands lie some 620 miles (1,000 kms) from Ecuador’s coast. Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Panama have launched a formal protest to China. This has been a recurring problem every year and China has not taken any action so far to control the illegal activity.
In the year 2017, the Chinese vessel, Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, was captured in Galapagos Marine Reserve carrying 300 tonnes of marine wildlife. It was a reefer vessel which carried illegal catches from fishing ships to a port and was intercepted after crossing inside the protected waters. There were 6,000 frozen sharks in its containers including hammerhead shark and whale shark. The vessel was fined US $ 6 million by Ecuadorian authorities and its 20 Chinese crewmembers were jailed up to four years for illegal fishing.
Almost of all the vessels sighted this year are flagged to China and particularly to companies with suspected history of IUU fishing, according to report of the C4ADS, a data analysis NGO. The fleet comprised of fishing boats as well as reefers. Transferring cargo between vessels is prohibited under international maritime law yet the Chinese flotilla has supply and storage ships along with longline and squid fishing boats.
Earlier in March 2016, Argentinian forces shot and sank a Chinese trawler illegally fishing in its waters in the South Atlantic. The incident happened off the coast of Puerto Madryn, 900 miles south of Buenos Aires. The Chinese ship, Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010, refused requests for boarding, and rammed into a coast guard boat resulting in the shooting incident. The 32 men on board were, however, rescued by the Argentinian and other Chinese vessels.
Antarctica waters – Nexus between Chinese companies and International Syndicates
A New Zealand Naval Patrol spotted in January 2015 the vessels Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua hauling gill nets with toothfish in an area regulated by the Commission of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where fishing with such gear is prohibited. The crew of the vessels claimed that they were flagged to Equatorial Guinea, but the latter denied. All three ships evaded detention. They were detected again a month later fishing in a nearby area. Further investigations revealed that the three vessels had changed their names, national registration and other identifying characteristics on multiple occasions to try and avoid detection. The three vessels had links to the Spanish Vidal Armadores syndicate. The cargo of the illegally caught Patagonian toothfish by the three vessels was destined for a Chinese company. Two of these vessels were detained in the Republic of Cabo Verde off West Africa while the third was detained in Vietnam, while heading for China. An illicit cargo of 164 tonnes of illegally caught toothfish was seized by the Vietnamese customs acting on Interpol notices. However, a Spanish court in September 2017 ordered compensation to the Chinese company for loss of this illicit cargo, despite protests from international conservation groups, Oceana Europe and Sea Shepherd. These three blacklisted vessels are now again renamed, reflagged and resumed their operations. This shows a wider Chinese nexus with international syndicates that try to undermine UNCLOS regulations on ocean conservation and indulge in illegal fishing even in protected sensitive eco-systems.
Case Study of IUU Fishing in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf
Nearly 100 Chinese ships returned to Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf in July this year, the highest in the past five years. Iranian fishermen told the France 24 Observers team that they are catching 50 percent less fish now compared to the year 2015, when the Chinese started arriving. The Chinese catch more than 240,000 tonnes of fish in a season compared to a total of 220,000 tonnes netted by Iranian fishermen. While local Iranian authorities deny the complaints of Chinese boats fishing in the country’s territorial waters, many fishermen took pictures and posted them on Instagram along with their map coordinates to prove the charges.
The practice of granting fishing licenses to foreign ships including the Chinese has now been restricted. To circumvent these restrictions, the Chinese have connived with local corrupt officials to create domestic shell companies that can carry out fishing operations. They operate Chinese boats with Chinese fishermen but fly the Iranian flag and change names of trawlers to Iranian ones. Iranian inspectors are tasked to maintain a watch on these ships, but their salaries are to be paid by these ship owners, thus defeating the very purpose. The Iranian partners, who often do not have any knowledge of fishing activities, get 6 percent of the profits from the yield. Much of this fish is sold in coastal markets of the Emiratis and other Gulf nations.
The Chinese trawlers are equipped with a sonar system that can locate schools of fish. They operate inside the Iranian waters during nights by turning off their navigation systems to avoid detection. They use huge net and bottom trawling techniques that scoop up everything in their wake. The Chinese trawlers are permitted to fish only lanternfish, but they grab whatever their nets catch. The primary victims of this type of fishing include dolphins, baby sharks and sea turtles. Both sea turtles and certain sharks are in danger of extinction because of this practice. They do not respect fishing season and continue depleting the fish even after the season in violation of the regulations.
Iranian authorities have intercepted 34 trawlers so far this year, most of them being Chinese with Iranian flags, fishing in illegal zones. Two of these boats were reportedly found six miles off the coast of Chabahar. The naval wing of the Revolutionary Guards confiscated last year the cargo of about 19 trawlers, mostly the Chinese. They get away with paltry penalties of about 3,000 euros.
Case Studies of IUU Fishing in African waters
Africa is perhaps the worst affected region with China’s depredations of fishing and even timber extending to almost all littoral states of the eastern, southern and western coasts of the continent. While other countries are involved in the IUU fishing in the area, the Chinese fleet is the largest. In a study published by the journal, Fish and Fisheries in December 2019, a team of researchers showed that nearly 6 per cent of the industrial fishing effort in the waters around 33 African countries and territories occurs in zones reserved for small-scale fishing communities. In some places, that figure is much higher in what the authors describe as “the most common form of illegal fishing in the region.”
Chinese longliners, including the Iranian flagged vessels, have long been seen fishing illegally in Somalian waters. This is despite the fact that the Somali government has instituted a very transparent system of licensing and controlling foreign flagged fishing vessels. Somali authorities estimated, using AIS and other technical tracking methods, that at least 200 vessels were seen fishing illegally during the 2019-20 fishing season. This is also confirmed by Global Fishing Watch and Trygg Mat Tracking.in their latest report. The Chinese reportedly bribe Somali pirates some US $ 10,000 for fishing in the country’s waters for a certain period of time.
Somali authorities raised the issue with China but the number of such illegal vessels is only increasing every year. Yasin Hagi Mohamoud, foreign minister of Somaliland, penned an open appeal to the international community in March last year in which he stressed the need for African nations to stand up to China and not grant it fishing licenses. Both licensed and illegal foreign fishing have led to rising anger among local fishermen who have been edged out of their own waters. Somalia insists the foreign trawlers stay at least 24 miles off the coast. Many of the Somali pirates so feared began as vigilantes defending their fishing grounds from foreigners.
According to the UK-based Oceanmind, which tracks fishing globally, three-quarters of the ships off West Africa are registered to Chinese companies. Following a BBC investigative report in March last year on how Chinese trawlers were using prohibited tactics to scoop up thousands of tonnes of its fish, Sierra Leone banned Chinese fishing for a month. Other African countries have also started asserting to control IUU fishing. The boarding of a Chinese vessel in Cameroon’s waters and arrest of its crew for illegal fishing and impounding of ships and fining of their owners in South Africa are some of the examples of tougher stance being taken by African governments. But with Greenpeace documenting up to 16 cases of illegal fishing off the coast of West African in one month, it is evident that such piecemeal efforts are not effective.
Mozambique’s Minister of Sea, Inland Waters and Fisheries, Agostinho Mondlane, said that illegal fishing within Mozambique’s exclusive economic zone costs its economy at least US $ 60 million a year. Several of the tuna-fishing boats commissioned by Mozambique to develop its own commercial fleet are now being leased by a Chinese-owned company. Unlike Sierra Leone’s one patrol boat, Mozambique, despite well-intentioned efforts, still has none.
Press reports in Maputo stated in December 2018 that the government had given fishing licenses to 114 Chinese boats, but Mondlane said such licenses were given to foreign firms only for tuna fishing. A total of 242 large scale vessels had licenses to fish in Mozambican Indian Ocean territory at the end of 2018. However, these figures appear to cover only legitimate fishing and it seems that industrial vessels comprise much bigger share of the illicit catch. The Minister said there were 700 inspections of commercial fishing vessels in 2018 and in 101 cases the fishing companies were fined, totaling about US $ 1.3 million. Mozambique alone has lost 300,000 badly-needed jobs and as much as US $ 3.3 billion in revenue – 10 times the amount East African nations make in legally licensing fishing by foreign vessels, according to the non-profit Stop Illegal Fishing.
Tanzanian authorities detained Chinese-flagged F/V Tai Hong No 1 in January 2018 for carrying a cargo of shark fins in violation of licensing regulations. They also found distressing living and working conditions on board for Tanzanian fishermen. Following the detention of the ship, there was a mass exodus of Chinese vessels leaving the country’s EEZ for the high seas. This is a violation of law that required vessels to report to a designated port for a post-fishing inspection before leaving the Tanzanian waters. The vessels apparently fled as they were illegally shark-finning despite being only licensed for tuna fishing. Nineteen of the twenty-four vessels were fined.
South African authorities have impounded six Chinese fishing trawlers in April this year and levied heavy penalties for entering their waters without required permission. The trawlers were detected entering South African Exclusive Economic Zone off the Northern Cape coast on April 2. The amount of fines was not specified, but in a previous similar transgression by three Chinese fishing vessels which were carrying more than 600 tonnes of squid, fines totaling $ 100,000 were collected.
The foregoing account of China’s IUU fishing across the world’s oceans demonstrate their blatant and fraudulent fishing practices which know no bounds. They have no respect for international maritime law, UNCLOS, or domestic regulations of littoral states. They care little for endangered species or environmental damage caused to marine eco-systems by their use of prohibited nets and trawling techniques. It is no more fishing but international thuggery over high seas. The Chinese may claim that these fishing companies are privately owned, and they have no control over them, which is a blatant lie. They have the state support in the form of subsidies and are protected against any international criminal proceedings.
Chinese reaction to all these allegations is always bizarre and on expected lines. It denies Chinese involvement stating that they have zero-tolerance of illegal fishing or just side steps saying they will inquire and take action against errant fishermen. Never such inquiry reports shown to complaining countries nor they give evidence of any action taken. In reaction to US Secretary Pompeo’s observations on Chinese illegal fishing off the Galapagos marine reserve, Beijing’s official spokesperson tersely responded saying how the US is qualified to make accusations against other countries’ maritime affairs when it is yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The Chinese bullying tactics on seas are much the same that they employ in their deceitful expansionist policies over land territory in the Himalayan zone. Much of the world community observe a deafening silence over the Chinese expansionism and defiance of the international order. The rich West is so much dependent on mercantile profits of doing business with China while the poor third world countries are so much used to the alms given by the Communist regime in the form of infrastructure investments and high valued loans, even if they are meant to draw them into a permanent debt trap. Hence, they are all at a distinct disadvantage to take cudgels against Beijing for its thuggery on high seas or bullying over the land territory for fear of losing the benefits they are now getting from it. There is, however, a growing realization of the adverse impact of Chinese tactics to world order and a unified position may emerge ultimately to force Beijing’s hands.
(Prasad Nallapati is President of the Hyderabad-based think tank, Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research)