Foreign Policy

China's monster fishing fleet

On August 5, 2017, China complied with a United Nations decision and officially imposed sanctions on North Korea, including a ban on seafood exports. Seafood, especially octopus, is one of North Korea's few major foreign exchange earners, and the sanctions should increase pressure on the regime.

But just weeks after the ban came into effect, hundreds of squid fishing vessels left Chinese waters and circled the southern tip of South Korea. They entered North Korea's 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), nearly doubling the number of Chinese fishing vessels operating there, from 557 to 907. This is according to a recent report by Global Fishing Watch that collected data from four different satellite systems . Although China publicly claimed to be complying with the sanctions, many Chinese ships continued to make voyages to North Korea and back, including several round trips per year in both 2018 and 2019, said Jaeyoon Park, one of the report's lead authors.

The Chinese fleet, made up of squid jiggers and pair trawlers, collected a staggering amount of squid – almost as much as all the squid catches in Japanese and South Korean waters combined over the same period, the report estimated. The Chinese decimated the squid population off North Korea to such an extent that Japanese and South Korean fishermen saw for themselves how the normally abundant migratory species sank.

To help the Chinese dispose of the squid undisturbed, the North Korean Navy was selling North Korean fishing vessels from their own traditional fishing grounds, said Peter Oh, a defector from North Korea who monitors the country's food situation and reports for Radio Free Asia. This is because the Chinese were by no means unwanted invaders. In fact, they were fishing at the invitation of the North Korean government, Oh said. Citing South Korean intelligence sources, he said North Korea had sold around 3,000 ship licenses to China as of 2017, each valid for one trip, up from around 900 in previous years. At around half a million yuan ($ 73,000) each, Pyongyang made up $ 220 million of the estimated $ 1 billion export losses from the 2017 sanctions round in the United States.

China's major North Korean squid robbery deprived some of the world's most malnourished people of one of their few sources of protein. For three years, ordinary North Koreans had practically no affordable animal protein in their diet and had to rely on a low-nutrient soy product called artificial meat, according to Oh, the sources in Dandong, China, the border town, citing 80 percent of trade between the two countries is past . Much of the little squid the North Koreans caught themselves went to the North Korean elite and military. "You can only find smelly, rotten squid in the markets, or no squid at all," said Oh. Other sources report that not only are the captured Chinese squid, but other types of fish have disappeared from North Korean markets as well. The fishing frenzy didn't stop until last summer when North Korea drove Chinese ships out of fear of the spread of COVID-19, Oh added.

South Korean Marines and Marines conduct crackdown on Chinese fisheries in waters near the South Korean island of Ganghwa in a photo taken by the South Korean Ministry of Defense on June 10, 2016. South Korean Ministry of Defense via Getty Images


Activists display anti-China posters and flags during a protest in a park in Manila on June 18, 2019 after a Chinese ship collided with a Filipino fishing boat that sank in the controversial South China Sea, causing outrage. TED ALJIBE / AFP via Getty Images

While Spanish sailboats fished cod off the coast of Newfoundland in the 15th century, the Chinese fishing fleet did not venture further into the distance until 1985, when 13 trawlers were sent to plow the fish-rich coastal waters of northwest Africa. China's blue-water fishing fleet is now by far the largest in the world, including 12,490 unique vessels that fished outside of China's internationally recognized EEZ in 2017 and 2018, according to a report by the British Overseas Development Institute. That is many times more than previous estimates and very different from China's own claim that only 3,000 ships fish international or other waters – but that's only because China does not recognize the demarcation of maritime borders by the United Nations Law of the Sea.

While China is not alone in its destructive fishing practices, what makes it stand out is its sheer size and the extent to which it pushes its highly subsidized fleet across the oceans. It is also the only country whose fishing fleet has a geopolitical mission to take over the waters of weaker countries and expand Beijing's maritime territorial ambitions. One of the malicious consequences of it all is that China's monster fishing fleet is depriving poorer nations – from North Korea to the countries of West Africa – of much-needed protein.

The North Korean case is particularly shameful, as Pyongyang has long traded scarce food for foreign currency, paying little attention to the health and lives of its own people. The real force driving this and other human rights disasters is China's hunger for seafood. China's 1.4 billion people not only consume 38 percent of global fish production, but also indulge in one of the world's highest per capita consumption of wild and farmed fish and seafood – 37.8 kilograms per person per year, 7 kilograms per person per year in 1985 according to information provided by China to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Although much has been written about Chinese overfishing, it has only recently become possible to document its extent thanks to new satellite technologies such as providing data to Global Fishing Watch. The same tracking technology used to prevent ships from hiding or evading sanctions shows that China's fishing fleet is often illegally engaged in transporting as much seafood as possible to as many places as possible – regardless of how its practices might turn out affect malnourished people or deplete their fish stocks.

This effort is not simply the sum of the individual decisions of the skipper. It's a government policy as most of the ships are actually paid for by the Chinese government for the fish, which covers the fleet's main cost of ownership: fuel. According to Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the University of British Columbia, China's annual bill for fisheries subsidies, 94 percent of which cover marine fuel, is $ 5.9 billion. That's about $ 347,000 per ship per year, far more than any other major fishing country. European Union ships, which are also considered highly subsidized, only receive about $ 23,000 a year, Sumaila said.

China's single-minded drive to maximize catch should come as no surprise as its records contain little about sustainable fishing. Its own coast, which was once one of the richest in the world, was overfished by its 300,000-strong domestic coastal fleet more than the waters of almost all other nations, with less than 15 percent of the original fish biomass remaining. The majority of the fleet consists of artisanal boats with small engines that make short trips near the coast. The rest are mostly trawlers who destroy the fish's habitat when they rake the seabed.

A Chinese-flagged ship that was seized by the Ecuadorean Navy in the waters of the Galapagos Marine Reserve on August 25, 2017. JUAN CEVALLOS / AFP via Getty Images


Residents of Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos, Ecuador took to the streets to protest illegal fishing on the islands on August 25, 2017 after the Ecuadorian Navy reported it had caught a Chinese fishing vessel in its waters. JUAN CEVALLOS / AFP via Getty Images

The waters off Argentina are a rare area where seafood is still abundant. Around 250 Chinese vessels fish for squid outside of Argentina's 200-mile EEZ, and sometimes plunge illegally into Argentina's waters. When a Chinese jigger invaded in 2018, an Argentine warship chasing him was nearly rammed by three other Chinese jiggers. "It's literally a war," said Milko Schvartzman, a former Greenpeace campaign manager and fisheries expert who estimates Argentine illegal fishing at $ 1 billion a year. "I have no doubt that this will end in tragedy."

China's South Atlantic fishing fleet is based in Montevideo, the capital and main port of Uruguay, Argentina's northern neighbor. Uruguay appears to have given China and its fishing fleet a free hand. "There are absolutely no real controls on foreign fishing boats," Schvartzman said.

Usually fishing vessels fly the flag of their home country which governs how they pay and treat the crew, comply with safety and pollution regulations, and fish where and when they should. To bypass these rules and avoid compliance, which can increase costs, many shipping companies register their ships in unregulated jurisdictions – so-called convenience flags, which include Liberia, Panama, and some Pacific and Caribbean island states. However, the Chinese authorities do not enforce many rules either, so very few Chinese ships choose to fly flags of convenience. "They are their own flag of convenience," said Schvartzman. "And they effectively created a haven of convenience in Montevideo – a pirate haven."

Not only do the Chinese make up 40 percent of the foreign fleet there, but they have also drawn attention to the high number of dead crew members that they are reportedly supposed to bring in – around one per month. "The conditions on their boats are terrible, some of the worst in the world," said Schvartzman. "Sometimes they dump the bodies at sea, but usually not because the crew is rebelling."

In 2018, the Chinese revealed plans to build their own port west of Montevideo – including massive facilities to process the catch from around 500 fishing vessels. The project garnered the support of the President of Uruguay but collapsed after generating strong local opposition.

Local fishermen sail towards the port in Tulear, Madagascar on November 3, 2018. Malagasy fishermen are already threatened by the effects of global warming and see their traditional way of life threatened by Chinese fishing boats following a fishing agreement between Chinese investors and Madagascar parastatal entities. MARCO LONGARI / AFP via Getty Images


A crew member of a Chinese fishing trawler stands aboard the ship docked in the port of Abidjan after it was stopped by an Ivory Coast Navy patrol and accused of illegal fishing off the coast of the West African country on November 28, 2014. ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese were more successful in Mozambique. According to Pierre Failler, a fisheries economist who heads the Center for Blue Governance at the University of Portsmouth, in 2017 they effectively took over the port of Beira, doubling its capacity to accommodate more than 100 trawlers. The Mozambican Channel between Madagascar and Mozambique was relatively unfished, and the Chinese fleet caught over 60,000 tons of high quality bottom fish such as sea bream and grouper each year, all of which go to China. "You pay the government a penny for the right to fish," said Failler. "The locals are now complaining that they are no longer catching anything."

On the other side of the continent in northwest Africa, the Chinese built around 20 fishmeal plants to process sardines, a once abundant and very nutritious mackerel fish, into feed for aquaculture and poultry. This industry has created a situation similar to that in North Korea: during the winter dry season, smoked sardinella was the main source of affordable protein in the region, one of the poorest in the world. In The Gambia, Chinese companies operate three fishmeal factories built five years ago that suck up so much sardinella that the local supply is reduced to a minimum. "It's devastating," said Mustapha Manneh, a Gambian journalist. "Gambians depend on this fish for their daily meal." In Kartong, where he lives, the price has increased fivefold. Further inland from Koina, where the land extends into the arid Sahel zone, sardine prices have increased tenfold. Fishing in the Gambia River cannot compensate for the loss of sardines. "It's dangerous because there are so many hippos," said Manneh. "The destruction cannot be overemphasized."

Daniel Pauly, a noted fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, is co-author of a study that found that 90 percent of fishmeal is made from perfectly edible fish like sardines. Its exploitation has sparked an absurd cycle of destruction driven by governments: They heavily subsidize unprofitable fisheries that are looking to reduce fish populations. Half of the world's catch, mostly from or near the waters of poor countries, is then converted into fishmeal to grow fish such as salmon, which are consumed in rich countries. "If they ended the subsidies, the fishery would be cut in half and the fish stocks would quickly grow again and double," Pauly said. "You could then sustainably double the original catch, which would be cheaper to fish and not require subsidies, and you would not have to raise as much fish," he adds. "We're in a vicious circle where a virtual one was always obvious."

In addition to the gigantic size and extreme level of subsidies, there is a third characteristic that characterizes the Chinese fishing fleet: Beijing's use as an instrument of expansion. It was the President of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek, who laid claim to large parts of the South China Sea in 1947 – claims inherited from the founder of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong. Greg Polis, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said China has been paying fishermen to cast their nets around the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys since the 1970s to counter some of these claims to promote. The two archipelagos or parts of them are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Controversial claims in the South China Sea

Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Permanent Court of Arbitration

China is the only country with a strategic fishing fleet. Of the crew of the ships in the South China Sea, Polis said, “Either they are fishermen who are paid to fish somewhere and that is the only reason they do that, or they are officially in the militia, which means that they never fish. They only use fishing boats to monitor other fleets, run supplies, or ram other boats. “Pauly, the fisheries scientist, said that" none other than in war does this. "

In the past ten years, Polis said, these efforts have "become much more professional, the tip of the spear for the sovereignty claims in the South China Sea." Philip Chou, a senior advisor to Washington-based environmental NGO Oceana, said the Chinese not only fish in the EEZs of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, but also use force to prevent fishermen from fishing there. "

A member of the Ivory Coast Navy patrols two Chinese fishing trawlers docked in Abidjan Harbor after they were accused of illegally fishing off the coast on November 28, 2014. ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP via Getty Images

But even if it does tremendous damage worldwide, the Chinese fishing fleet – with the exception of its strategic military wing in the South China Sea – operates within what Pauly calls "a corrupt, chaotic international system". As long as other countries subsidize their fleets, so will Beijing. If China stopped subsidizing, Pauly said, "They would lose half their catch and they would be the only ones in the world to do so." Europeans, in particular, are also involved in many illegal fisheries, said Vanya Vulperhorst, head of Oceana's campaign against illegal fishing, and often used boats with non-European flags to circumvent the rules. For example, according to Europol, the illegal bluefin tuna market in the Mediterranean is twice as large as the legal one.

There is a glimmer of hope. Talks to reduce fisheries subsidies are ongoing in the World Trade Organization. An agreement is due by the end of the year. According to Isabel Jarrett, who leads the Pew Charitable Trust's campaign to reduce harmful fisheries, "China is pragmatic, not obstructive," and will likely cut its subsidies if everyone else does. Until then, however, China's monster fishing fleet will continue to deplete the oceans and millions of impoverished North Koreans, Africans and others will starve.

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