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Chinese IUU fishing is destabilizing maritime security

‘Fishboat diplomacy’ is used as a proxy for naval power

An Argentine soldier fires at a Chinese fishing boat in Argentine waters. 

An Argentine soldier fires at a Chinese fishing boat in Argentine waters.    (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The outbreak of COVID-19 seriously disrupted global food distribution networks and, as the world transitions through the pandemic recovery, it is more critical than ever to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Seafood consumption has kept climbing in recent years as the unprecedented growth of the global middle class has brought increased demand. At least 3 billion people rely on farmed or wild-caught seafood as their primary source of protein, while over 4.3 billion get at least 15% of their animal protein intake from fish and other seafood.

IUU fishing also contributes to issues like piracy and terrorism in East and West Africa.

Yet in Asia, it contributes to a growing number of maritime border disputes that are often overlooked. This, in tandem with China’s bellicose naval aggression in seas near and afar, makes the country’s IUU fishing a cause for concern.

Former U.S. Navy Admiral and NATO commander James Stavridis warned in a 2017 article that China was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize vessels involved in IUU fishing. Late last year, the U.S. government warned China's illegal fishing could spark a conflict in the region. Some recent cases show just how close that prospect is.

The Yakushima incident

Last year, a Japanese destroyer — the Shimakaze — had a 1-meter hole punctured in its hull after colliding with a Chinese fishing vessel 650 kilometers west of the Japanese island of Yakushima. Two fishermen aboard the Chinese vessel were injured. That incident came weeks after another alarming one involving the Taiwanese Coast Guard and Chinese fishing boats in Pacific waters.

IUU incidents can often involve far more than boat ramming and trading insults over the radio waves though. In 2019, the Argentine coast guard opened fire upon and sunk Chinese vessels illegally fishing in Argentina's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Of course, China is not the only country aggressively using its fishermen as a proxy for its military power — or “fishboat diplomacy.”

Vietnam and others have also been accused of using their fishing fleets as "militia." Last year, when Indonesia launched a major operation to crack down on IUU fishing in its territorial waters, it destroyed 51 foreign vessels, only two of which were Chinese flagged.

Yet, there is no denying that a large number of vessels involved in IUU fishing hail from China, which has also been the world's largest exporter of seafood since 2002.

China achieved dominance over seafood quickly. The communist country built the world’s largest deepwater fishing fleet, with some 3,000 vessels, in less than two decades.

However, that number fails to show the extent of Chinese influence on the global fishing industry. Indeed, a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation revealed 90% of Ghana's industrial trawlers have Chinese owners.

Chinese authorities have reluctantly admitted to having a problem. Several new regulations have been announced, including a blacklist for Chinese company executives and boat captains who engage in IUU fishing. Furthermore, under the current Chinese policy, no vessel is supposed to fish within 3 miles of the EEZ of any country.

Issue of enforcement

Yet, China's enforcement of these measures can often vary depending on the jurisdiction.

"In the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea and most of the East China Sea (in waters they have clear jurisdiction over), they are taking IUU fishing very seriously because IUU fishing has a directly felt impact on domestic sustainability and food security..." said Tabitha Grace Mallory, a leading expert on Chinese fishing practice.

"China's annual fishing moratorium only extends to 12°N latitude, so any fishing below that (such as near the Spratlys) is pretty much a free-for-all,” she added. “China provides large subsidies to fishing fleets that operate in that area".

Of course, China is not the only one with problematic subsidies. The EU has quietly reintroduced subsidies to help grow its fishing fleet. Unless measures are taken to end such harmful subsidies, the stomachs of those who live above the water will soon feel the impact as well.

"The long-distance water fishing fleet is responsible for the majority of IUU fishing incidents linked to Chinese-flagged fishing vessels — and considering that the operation of the foreign fishing fleet is only possible due to state subsidies — China needs to cut all of its fishing subsidies. For that matter, the European Union needs to do the same with its long-distance fleet”, said Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shephard.

UN’s global response

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for countries to abandon fishing subsidies in the interest of food security. The goals were approved by the General Assembly in 2015 and are meant to be achieved by 2030.

The 14th SDG goal, "Life Below Water," calls on all nations to "prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing; eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.”

China, the EU and a number of OECD countries who also contribute to IUU fishing are signatories to these goals. If more is not done to address the problem, there will be a lot more empty grocery store shelves and many more empty stomachs. More emphasis needs to be placed on naming and shaming vessels, companies, and crews involved in such practices.

Furthermore, through satellite images and other efforts, more attention should be paid to these vessels, particularly the so-called “motherships” that allow certain IUU-involved vessels to stay at sea for long periods. Perhaps most critically, more effort should be put into enhancing the enforcement and naval capabilities of states involved where significant IUU fishing is present, from Africa to the South Pacific.

Joseph Hammond is a journalist and former Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi. Hammond has been a recipient of fellowships organized by several think tanks, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council of the United States, the Heinrich Boll Stiftung North America Foundation, and the Policy Center for the New South’s Atlantic Dialogue.