Illegal and unreported fishing generates great concern about the enormous damage to ecosystems, national economies, and global maritime security. Chinese fishing fleets pose the greatest threat because of their size and growing demand for certain species it considers valuable.

U.S. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro noted at Ocean Security Forum 2021 that illegal and unreported fishing “is happening on an industrial scale” worldwide. The culprit is often China’s subsidized fishing fleet. 

Furthermore, during his participation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he stressed that 1 in 5 fish sold on international markets is illegally caught.

China’s voracious fishing

China represents by far the world’s largest fish market. As reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO), in 2018, it registered 35% of the world’s production.

According to ABC News, it also consumes about 36% of the world’s total fish production and transports 15.2 million tons of marine species per year, representing 20% of its total annual catch.

While Beijing stated that it would reduce the distant water fishing fleet (DWF) to approximately 3,000 vessels by 2020, a research report by the Overseas Development Institute indicates that it would have up to nearly 17,000 DWF vessels preying on much of the world’s marine wildlife. 

As a comparison, the European Union’s DWF fleet in 2014 was 289 vessels, while the U.S. DWF fleet was 225 vessels in 2015.

“Millions of people, particularly in poor coastal countries, are directly dependent on fisheries resources for their livelihoods and food security. The discovery that China’s distant water fishing fleet is much larger than expected is alarming and should be a warning sign. Global fishing fleets—not just the Chinese—need to be more transparent about their size and operations, to prevent further overfishing of already unsustainably depleted fisheries resources,” says Alfonso Daniels, co-author of the report.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

A portion of the fishing fleets is legal. Still, a large volume of fleets, particularly the Chinese flagged fleet, operates in the shadows of legality. As a result, several coastal regions rich in precious marine wildlife face alarming illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing cases.

China has the worst IUU Index, and according to the Overseas Development Institute study, 183 vessels in its DWF fleet are suspected of engaging in these illegal activities.

The IUU Index was launched in early 2019 to compare and rank countries according to their response to IUU fishing. Since its launch, governments and regional fisheries organizations have widely used it to assess IUU fishing risk. The index scores for each country range from 3.86 (China—the worst) to 1.62 (Estonia and Finland—the best).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), under the U.S. Department of Commerce, differentiates between these three types of activities that violate national and international fishing regulations.

NOAA states:

  • Refers to fishing activities conducted in contravention of applicable laws and regulations, including those laws and rules adopted at the regional and international level;
  • Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities that are not reported or are misreported to relevant authorities in contravention of national laws and regulations or reporting procedures of a relevant regional fisheries management organization;
  • IUU fishing occurs in areas or for fish stocks for which there are no applicable conservation or management measures and where such fishing activities are conducted in a manner inconsistent with State responsibilities for the conservation of living marine resources under international law…

IUU fishing is the sixth most lucrative criminal activity worldwide. In 2009, it was valued at up to $23.5 billion annually, according to an estimate obtained through a study published by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). A 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity estimated annual revenues of $15 billion to $36 billion.

Unlike companies that comply with numerous regulations ensuring sustainability, fair competition, and proper working conditions for fish workers, vessels engaged in IUU fishing do not. As a result, they operate in permanent violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement establishing a legal framework for all maritime activities.

Illegal Chinese fishing stalks Latin American oceans

The oceans off the coasts of Latin America are one of the most targeted by these “floating cities” because they contain products prized by China, such as giant squid in Peru and Argentina, cod in Argentinean waters, tuna in Chilean waters, the shark in Colombian and Ecuadorian waters and totoaba in Mexican waters.

These illegal fishing fleets threaten the lives in their waters and jeopardize the economies and security of coastal countries.

The number of Chinese vessels practicing IUU fishing in the Pacific waters off the coast of South America is increasing, as revealed by an investigation conducted by a team aboard the patrol vessel Ocean Warrior of the environmental organization Sea Shepherd Global. Thie report was published on September 24, 2021, by the Associated Press (AP) and the Univision network.

The presence of the Chinese fleet in this place is part of a raid that is repeated every year. Starting in May, the ships will begin crossing through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific Ocean. Once there, they will sail to the border of the Peruvian sea, where they will stop for a while to fish for another species of squid, the Dosidicus gigas (giant squid), and then move to the limits of the Galapagos exclusive economic zone in Ecuador.

Latin American countries most affected

Argentina

Every year during the austral summer season, this country receives the arrival of foreign vessels, especially from China, which fishes without licenses within the exclusive economic exploitation zone (EEZ), located within the 200 nautical miles of Argentine territorial waters.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Convemar), which Argentina approved in 1995, fishing outside the EEZ, known as Mile 201, is legal. 

The South Atlantic is considered one of the world’s most important fishing grounds, both for the diversity and quantity of fish fauna. The vast majority of the vessels in the area are “poteros,” that is to say, dedicated entirely to squid extraction. But 70% of the ships within the limit of the 200 nautical miles of Argentina are Chinese. 

According to the head of the Argentine Naval League, Fernando Morales, “The Argentine State is paying more attention to the issue of illegal fishing.” He pointed out that “three patrol boats, plus two Navy corvettes are positioned on the 200-mile line and are present, in addition to the patrol boats of the Prefecture.”

Violation of the Argentine waters EEZ is penalized with a fine. However, Morales pointed out that “until the world agrees, you cannot prevent (predation within the EEZ) because there is no firepower or police power” to prevent such actions on the high seas.

In the more than two decades since patrolling of the Argentine Sea was implemented, the Prefecture has captured 80 vessels found violating the exclusion zone. One of its most significant achievements was to get, in 2016, Interpol to detain in an Indonesian port the Chinese fishing vessel “Hua Li 8” that had crossed the 200-mile line.

According to reports, on February 29, 2016, an Argentine coast guard vessel detected the Chinese-flagged vessel Hua Li 8 fishing without a permit in the EEZ. 

After getting no response from the crew when warned to stop the illegal fishing activity, the protocol governing cases of disobedience was activated. Minutes later, a controlled fire was directed from the patrol vessel as a method of persuasion.

The shots destroyed the entire communications system of the Chinese vessel. However, the vessel fled, so the Argentine Federal Justice issued the international arrest warrant. Finally, the vessel was captured in Indonesian waters by Indonesian authorities.

The depredation of migratory species entering and leaving the EEZ is causing a depletion of Argentine fish stocks. To prevent it, the Argentine Navy has made available a vessel specially designed to patrol the eastern sector of the Magellan Strait against fishing vessels coming from the Pacific Ocean. In this way, all Chinese ships crossing the Strait are identified and escorted to mile 201. 

“It chills the blood. It is a real tide of rusty iron that advances in compact form. They are not only fishing vessels, but also tankers and refrigerated cargo ships that provide the necessary logistical support for these vessels to operate continuously without returning to port,” one of those responsible for exercising control in this area of the Magellan Strait told Infobae.

Chile

Chile has a large part of Latin America’s Pacific coast, so its maritime resources do not escape the growing threat of Chinese vessels in international waters that daily cross into Chilean waters to extract the marine fauna that inhabits them. 

Illegal fishing in Chile represents an estimated annual cost of $300 million for the country, according to a 2020 report by AthenaLab, a Chilean defense and security research center.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that coastal nations have jurisdiction over natural resources within their EEZ, so while Chinese vessels cannot fish in their waters, they can navigate.

In December 2020, the Chilean Navy reported that 432 Chinese-flagged fishing vessels and 17 logistical support vessels were sailing off the country’s coast.

“Of the above, 77 are already in transit within the area of national responsibility, of which only 11 transit the Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], without making use of their gear or carrying out fishing operations,” the statement said, according to the Chilean military digital magazine, Diálogo.

The increase in recent years in the number of Chinese-flagged vessels sighted by the Chilean Navy off the Chilean coast has increased concern about IUU fishing, which has generated a starting point for new policies aimed at regulating international fishing activity more effectively.

Peru

Peruvian waters are home to one of the species most prized by Chinese fishermen, the Dosidicus gigas, also known as giant or Humbolt squid, a highly migratory species with a rapid growth rate and a short life span.

The fishery for this giant squid is one of the largest globally and is regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), reports Global Fishing Watch.

Reports indicate that the number of active Chinese-flagged fishing vessels operating in areas regulated by the RFMO-PS has increased by approximately 400% in nine years, with 104 registered in 2010 and 516 in 2019.

That year, a total of 707 DFW squid vessels were authorized under registration to fish for giant squid on the high seas. Of these, 516 were fishing and were China-flagged, according to the RFMO-PS Scientific Committee report.

This number of active Chinese squid vessels caught 305,700 tons on the high seas in 2019, compared to the much smaller 2,500 Peruvian artisanal vessels, which caught 494,000 tons in the same year in national waters. These differences are evidence of the alarming overwhelming capacity of Chinese ships to extract marine resources.

Concerns regarding illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing have been linked to the industrial squid fleet operating on the high seas. Some potential risks include inaccurate catch reporting and possible unauthorized fishing within Peru’s EEZ.

One of the latest measures implemented by Peru in 2020 for more efficient control over foreign vessels navigating its waters is the requirement to install vessel monitoring systems (VMS) if they wish to use Peruvian ports for maintenance, refueling, or crew change.

Ecuador

The Galapagos Marine Reserve in Ecuador is home to the largest biomass of sharks on the planet. But, unfortunately, many of them are endangered and considered a prized delicacy by China.

In 2020, 260 Chinese vessels spent several weeks fishing for squid in the limits of the Galapagos exclusive economic zone, which worried Ecuadorian authorities, not only because of the ecological impact of reducing those resources but also because of the threat to endangered species.

“There is a lot of concern about the volume of fishing. We are talking about a gigantic fleet,” said Luis Suárez, Ecuador’s NGO Conservation International director. 

Fishing in international waters is not illegal, even if those waters are right next to areas of great ecological importance. Fishing fleets that sail in these waters where the activity lacks regulations and monitoring increase the threat to the life of these species, which know no maritime borders and often cross demarcation lines.

In 2017, a precedent set off alarm bells. The Chinese reefer vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was chased and boarded by Ecuadorian authorities inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. According to an ABC News report, they found a gruesome haul of 6,000 frozen shark carcasses. 

Four South American countries prepare to challenge Chinese fishing abuse

In a historic joint effort against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by the fleet of foreign-flagged vessels, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia issued a joint statement condemning such fraudulent practices establishing a commitment to generate policies to combat them.

The coalition raised the need for information exchange and joint action to stop IUU in their exclusive economic zones through the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (CPPS), a maritime regulatory body where all four countries have equal standing.

China uses forced labor in distant water fisheries

In addition to being a significant threat to ocean ecosystems, Chinese IUU fishing is detrimental to the legal fishing trade and is linked to organized crime.

The U.S. Department of Labor claims that the Chinese distant water fishing industry uses forced labor to catch squid and tuna for China’s domestic and foreign consumption.

“IUU fishing is also often found to be associated with many other forms of transnational organized crime, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, and piracy. Not to mention the exploitation of weak and corrupt elements of national management regimes,” said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. 

Meanwhile, Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist, studied the Chinese fleet operating in both the South Atlantic and South Pacific for years. As a result, he revealed another serious aspect associated with illegal fishing by these vessels—the appalling living conditions of the workers on board. 

Schvartzman, who is currently a member of the Argentine organization Círculo de Políticas Ambientales, points out that the Port of Montevideo in Uruguay is the primary support for the South Atlantic fishing fleet. But, he said, “foreign fishing vessels land at least one dead crew member per month,” citing a report by the U.S. State Department and a study by C4ADS.

While the expert clarified that he is not against Uruguay receiving foreign vessels, he emphasized the importance of state control, as they are not complying with the international agreements they have ratified. 

“They receive ships with recidivism in human rights abuses, this is extremely serious, and the U.S. State Department states all this. 

The Uruguayan Foreign Ministry itself investigated the case of the African crew members who had chains around their ankles and who worked as enslaved people aboard a Chinese ship,” Schvartzman assured.

Latin America must be ruthless in the face of Chinese predation

China’s distant water fishing fleet is by far the largest globally. Still, little information is available on its actual size and the scale of its operations, mainly because it is highly fragmented and lacks transparency throughout the chain of operations.

Many of its ships are registered with companies in other countries but operate subsidized by the ruling communist regime.

“It is very difficult to know what is the proportion of Chinese state involvement in the poaching and human rights abuse enterprises, because there is a legal framework perfectly designed by the companies so that it is not known. We know that the State subsidizes the fuel for these ships, so its participation is unquestionable,” said Schvartzman. 

“It is also very difficult to know how the interests that pressure the officials of our countries to, in some cases, not confront illegal fishing and human rights abuses as they should,” he added.

However, due to the alarming escalation in the number of fishing vessels that each year stalk coastal countries, home to thousands of aquatic lives of enormous value to the ecosystem, Latin America must put practical limits in place to stop the fraudulent practices that are draining its natural resources. 

“The more ports close their doors to IUU fishing, the healthier our oceans can be,” said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on its website.

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