‘It’s terrifying’: can anyone stop China’s vast armada of fishing boats?


Ecuador stood up for the Galápagos, but other countries don’t stand a chance against the 17,000-strong distant-water fleet
An Ecuadorian navy vessels challenges a fishing boat on 7 August after a fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged ships were detected in the Pacific Ocean.
 An Ecuadorian navy vessels challenges a fishing boat on 7 August after a fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged ships were detected in the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: Santiago Arcos/Reuters

The recent discovery by the Ecuadorean navy of a vast fishing armada of 340 Chinese vessels just off the biodiverse Galápagos Islands stirred outrage both in Ecuador and overseas.

Under pressure after Ecuador’s strident response, China has given mixed signals that it could begin to reel in its vast international fishing fleet. Its embassy in Ecuador declared a “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal fishing, and this week it announced it was tightening the rules for its enormous flotilla with a series of new regulations.

But with 325 of those 340 ships remaining off Ecuador, and local navy commander Darwin Jarrín saying last week that nearly half of those vessels had intermittently switched off their satellite communications – breaching the rules of the regional fisheries management organisation – the episode has shown how difficult it is for small nations to stand up to China’s distant fleet even when it descends on the archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

China’s vast fishing fleet, by far the world’s largest, has been overfishing seas much further from the world’s gaze than the islands known for their giant tortoises and iguanas. From West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea to the Korean peninsula, the fleet has moved into the waters of other countries – switching off transponders to avoid detection, depleting fish stocks and threatening food security for often poor coastal communities. In east Asia, fishing vessels may act as the vanguard of an aggressive geopolitical strategy aimed at asserting territorial claims.

China’s new regulations this week include harsher penalties for companies and captains involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated – or IUU – fishing. But conservationists monitoring the Galápagos episode are sceptical.

The fleet is a vast and complex network. Among the hundreds of vessels are fuel providers, fishing boats, tender boats and reefers, some of which camouflage unregistered boats, Guerrero says. Many ships spend long periods at sea where shocking human rights violations have been reported.

NGO Global Fishing Watch and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) thinktank have used cutting-edge technology and data analysis to reveal that the size and scope of China’s distant-water fleet has been hugely underreported.

An Ecuadorian navy officer looks at a radar after the mostly Chinese-flagged fleet was detected in an international corridor that borders the Galápagos Islands.
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 An Ecuadorian navy officer looks at a radar on 7 August after the mostly Chinese-flagged fleet was detected in an international corridor that borders the Galápagos Islands. Photograph: Santiago Arcos/Reuters

The ODI found the fleet had 16,966 vessels, five times more than previous estimates. By contrast, the US distant-water fleet comprises 300 boats.

In 2017, as part of its 13th fisheries five-year plan, China announced plans to cap the size of the fleet to 3,000 vessels by 2020.

“We were shocked by the results because we were expecting 4,000 or 5,000 vessels,” says Miren Gutiérrez, the lead author of the ODI report.

The research, which took more than a year, also found nearly 1,000 of the boats were using “flags of convenience” and at least 183 vessels were involved in suspected IUU fishing, for which China ranked the worst-performing nation in a 2019 global index.

“Most of this overfishing is not illegal, that’s the problem,” Gutiérrez says, as most of it goes on in international waters. Most of the fleet’s vessels are trawlers – banned within China’s territorial waters and notorious for damaging ecosystems by dragging nets along the seafloor. Other common boats are longliners, for larger fish such as tuna or shark, and squid-jiggers, which usually operate in deeper waters.

“To shift the dynamic there needs to be radical transparency,” says Philip Chou, an expert on distant-water fishing at Oceana, a marine conservation group. “So far, the evidence has not shown that [the Chinese government] has taken it further than rhetoric.”

China would need to open up about its catch, the real-time location of its fleets, the ownership of fishing vessels, and the opaque bilateral or regional agreements it has made with low-income coastal nations, Chou says. In west Africa, for example, a 2018 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation found 90% of Ghanaian-flagged vessels had Chinese involvement.

Protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Quito, Ecuador, earlier this month call for fisheries control.
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 Protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Quito, Ecuador, earlier this month call for fisheries control. Photograph: José Jácome/EPA

The world’s biggest seafood exporter is also mooted to be planning to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, the first internationally binding accord in which ports around the world pledge not to allow illegal or unregulated fishing boats to land catches.

China hauled up about 15% of the world’s reported fishing catch in 2018, according to the UN fisheries agency, more than twice the second- and third-ranking countries. But the lack of transparency means it is impossible to truly know how much seafood humans take from the ocean amid an alarming drop in marine life in the past half-century.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that illegal fishing has an annual cost of up to $23bn. The FAO also calculatesd that nearly 60 million people worked in fishing or aquaculture in 2016, 85% of them in Asia.

Ecuador is one of a few small nation states that have pushed back against the Chinese flotillas. In the hotly disputed South China Sea, Indonesia sent F-16 fighter jets along with navy, coastguard and fishing boats to repel 63 Chinese fishing boats and four coastguard vessels from its waters in January.

Ecuador’s defence minister, Oswaldo Jarrin, flanked by navy admirals, at a press conference, in the port city of Guayaquil, about the Chinese fleet operating near the Galápagos Islands.
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 Ecuador’s defence minister, Oswaldo Jarrin, flanked by navy admirals, at a press conference, in the port city of Guayaquil, about the Chinese fleet operating near the Galápagos Islands. Photograph: Reuters

But North Korean fishing boats may have come off worse from exchanges with China’s “dark fleets”, amid reports of “ghost boats” washing up on Japanese shores containing the bodies of North Korean fishermen. In its backyard, the Chinese fleet has a fearsome reputation for systemic illegal fishing and aggressive tactics when faced with competitors or foreign patrol vessels.

China signed a key UN fish stocks agreement in 1996 but never ratified it. It is a member of seven regional fishery management organisations, or RFMOs, but its distant water fleet operates outside of those frameworks, says Mercedes Rosello, director of House of Ocean, a not-for-profit legal consultancy that monitors IUU fishing.

“When you are looking at thousands of vessels, the rules and mechanisms which that flag state adopts are of huge transcendence,” Rosello says.

The US, Japan, and the EU, which make up about 70% of the global seafood market, need to take proactive measures to disrupt IUU fish from Chinese vessels from entering international supply chains, says Trent.

“[Without] wholescale structural change by China and the system of global governance of the ocean to make sure the Chinese do abide by the law,” he says, the world’s fish stocks would continue their precipitous decline.

“The people who suffer first and worst are almost always the coastal communities who rely on those fisheries for their survival, wellbeing and food,” he says.

“Exactly what happens in the Galápagos [Islands] happens in locations around the world and it’s terrifying.”

Source: The Guardian “It’s terrifying’: can anyone stop China’s vast armada of fishing boats?”

Note: This is The Guardian’s report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.


7 Comments on “‘It’s terrifying’: can anyone stop China’s vast armada of fishing boats?”

  1. Joseph says:

    ‘In the hotly disputed South China Sea, Indonesia sent F-16 fighter jets along with navy, coastguard and fishing boats to repel 63 Chinese fishing boats and four coastguard vessels from its waters in January.’
    And where do you suppose those F-16s are flying from, morons? Natuna does not have airfield big enough to accommodate fighter jets, and Indonesia does not have an aircraft carrier. Why is the F-16 suddenly so important? Those F-16s are grounded pending corruption investigations. They are not going anywhere anyway, since they are bleeding spareparts, and no pilot is eager to touch the potential flying coffins. Even as Reuters reported the article in the link, the article clearly shows the picture of Indonesian president with the background of Indonesian Sukhoi, not F-16. And the base is clearly the Indonesian main Airforce base in Makassar, Sulawesi. That’s a long way from Natuna, or the South China Sea. The Sukhois are actively operated to repel trespassing American navy, doing ‘FONOP’ in Indonesia waters, not chasing some Chinese fishing boats outside Indonesian territory. Ironic that the article mention ‘January this year’. Wasn’t it the time where the Indonesian president Jokowi went to Natuna himself to reprimand the base commander for exaggerating the 200 nm EEZ with the 12 nm territorial coastline to the Indonesian-based Western media. Since then there was no more talk about Natuna. F-16 on Natuna? Yeah right. Is the F-16 amphibious? What next? Submarine on top of the mountain?

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  2. johnleecan says:

    It is the west that waste so much food everyday that can feed billions of people daily just because they don’t know how to remove fish or even chicken bones. Aside from that, millions of kilos of food wasted that is very evident on food left on restaurants you’ll see around the world. Personally, you’ll never ever see food left on my plate after a meal, not even a speck of rice.

    Chinese have been eating almost every part of fish, chicken, pork that is usually discarded by other people like head, feet, blood, internal organs, etc. since ancient times. Other Asians have already been selling these in the last few decades to Chinese people because they know they can profit from it and most importantly because of poverty. I remember in the 60’s and 70’s these discarded parts litter the ground in wet markets.

    Surely and positively this article has been influenced by the west and demonizes China without evidences and even admitted they don’t have proofs. It is written with bias and using assumptions to make China look guilty. But in fact, the gluttonous west has been the most wasteful nations on earth.

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  3. Allen Lau says:

    It is terrifying ” can anyone stop Americans from using 10 times or 1000 percent more energy each than an average Earth citizen?

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    • Simon says:

      Its terrifying that Americans tell other countries to boycott a tech company based on racism. Its terrfiying that American police and its president support white police officers killing citizens who are black. Its terrifying American spy agencies can have access to everyone’s communication media around the world without recourse. Its also terrifying America can go around bombing other countries based on false intelligence, stealing other countries oil and gas and not be put on trial for war crimes.

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  4. Simon says:

    Japanese are well known and worse offender for overfishing. I bet they hunt 99% of whales too.

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    • Joseph says:

      It is not actually the Jap’s fault that they are eating whales. The one who should be blamed is the American. They are the one who force the Japs to eat whales in the first place. It was during the Korean War that the American deprived the Japs from meats. As the ‘victor’ of the WWII, the American boasted a ‘world-class’ army in the Korean War. In order to show prestige, the American fed their army in Korea excessively. Basically it was banquet on the battlefield. Meat, cheese and Coca Cola were flown from America directly to Korea. But as the war dragged on, these decadence became too expensive for America to maintain. The soldiers, however, had gotten used to the spoiled decadence and must be kept happy to maintain morale. In order to keep the cost low, the American initially ordered their troops to raid Korean villages for livestocks. When raiding the battlefield became increasingly dangerous, they stripped the occupied Japan for livestocks to the point that they did not allow the occupied Japs to eat their produce at all as everything must be prioritized for the ravenous army demanding banquets on the battlefield. As starvation was looming in Japan, the American ordered the Japs to go hunt whales on the the sea. The whales were big, plentiful and the American wouldn’t eat. It was just a dumb American solution that the American was doing on the go. When the war was over, the Japs had developed taste for whales, and as the Japs getting richer, they hunt whales to the end of the world, to extinction. The American could not simply ordered the Japs to stop eating whales. After all, the American eats squirrels and gators when livestocks are plentiful. So while overfishing might be exaggerated, nobody notices American over-hunting. They already import the squirrel from Canada since the squirrels become extinct in many places in America.

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  5. More idiotic Sinophobia from Guardian.Chinese fishermen caught 15 % of worlds fish, so? Chinese made up over 20% of world’s population, so thats at least 5% net deficit that should go to Chinese fishermen. Idiots.

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