China says it has banned its massive fishing fleet from catching squid in parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for three months to help populations recover, after environmental groups warned the country’s illegal fishing activities are devastating ecologically sensitive areas such as the Galapagos Islands.
According to China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural affairs, the moratorium bans all Chinese fishing fleets on parts of the high seas in southwest Atlantic and east Pacific for three months, effective July 1st.
China’s state media Global Times said the move promotes long-term sustainable use of fishery resources in open waters, and “highlights China's image as a responsible fishing power and is a milestone for China's participation in international maritime management.”
Experts who spoke to VOA say that Chinese illegal fishing is not only used by Beijing to stake maritime claims, the fleet’s massive overfishing helps drive food insecurity and ecological problems.
Largest distant water fleet
China’s distant-water fishing vessels have long caused controversy in waters around Asia. As the fleet has grown, so have complaints. Recently, about 340 large Chinese trawlers ventured into waters near Ecuador, triggering protests over possible threats to the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to many unique species.
There are also ongoing conflicts involving Chinese fishing vessels in waters off Africa and the Korean Peninsula.
Miren Gutierrez, a research Associate at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), told VOA that China now has the largest distant water fleet in the world, and it’s on the move.
“Having depleted fish stocks in domestic waters and encouraged by subsidies, China’s distant-water fishing fleets have been traveling farther and farther afield, and its companies have been building more and more vessels to meet the rising demand for seafood,” she said.
ODI research has documented nearly 17,000 Chinese fishing vessels, making it nearly impossible to sufficiently monitor all of them worldwide.
Security, environmental concerns
Analysts say many Chinese vessels conduct “illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)” fishing activities that threaten the sovereignty of other nations and endanger the global food security chain.
According to the 2019 IUU index created by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, China among 152 countries in illegal finishing activities.
In waters around East Asian countries, China has been using fishing to bolster its territorial claims. Countries including Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia have reacted strongly to China’s illegal fishing activities in the disputed waters.
In March, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force warship collided with a Chinese fishing vessel in the East China Sea. A week before that, two Taiwanese patrol boats got into a conflict with Chinese fishing boats when they tried to stop them from conducting illegal fishing near the Taiwan Strait.
In 2019, the Argentina Coast Guard opened fire on a Chinese fishing vessel that was reportedly fishing illegally in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Apart from security concerns, IUU fishing has exacerbated a global food crisis. Around 3.2 billion people rely on seafood as their main source of protein, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said in June about one third of fish stocks are being fished at “biologically unsustainable levels.”
China ranks top when it comes to demand for seafood. The country’s fish consumption accounts for one third of the world’s total amount, with an annual growth rate of 6%.
Meanwhile, illegal fishing activities have caused serious economic loss to countries involved in the dispute. Recent data from Senegal shows that illegal fishing results in an annual loss of $270 million from the local economy. Malaysia’s first National Defense White Paper released this year stated that illegal fishing creates an annual drain on the economy of $1.5 billion.
Tabitha Mallory, an affiliate professor specializing in Chinese foreign and environmental policy at the University of Washington, told VOA it’s hard for developing countries to properly monitor coastal waters.
“China fishes in countries that don’t have the ability monitor their coastal waters well, like North Korea," she said. "Coast guard vessels and fuel for those patrol vessels are often cost prohibitive for developing countries.”
The international community has pressured China to improve its industrial fishing practices. After U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Chinese fleet activities in Galapagos an infringement of Ecuador’s sovereignty, China announced that it suspended fishing in the area.
Mallory pointed to other positive gestures, such as China's decision to add language on IUU fishing to newly revised drafts of the Fisheries Law and the recently updated Distant Water Fishing. It has also created penalties for those who engage in IUU fishing, including a blacklist, fines, and the removal of fishing subsidies.
Yet she said the most essential thing is for the Chinese government to stop its large subsidies to its distant water fishing industry. According to the 2019 IUU index created by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, China ranked last among 152 countries.
“China is currently seeking to preserve many of these subsidies as a developing country, but it’s hard to argue that China has that status when it has the largest distant-water fleet in the world,” she continued.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are calling on China to be more transparent in sharing data concerning its distant water fleets.
Daisy Brickhill, spokeswoman at the Environmental Justice Foundation, told VOA that some of these actions could include publishing lists of all distant-water fishing authorizations and fishing vessels licensed under Chinese flags online, along with details of all cases of illegal fishing and the sanctions imposed.