Over a hundred miles from the mainland, off the coast of West Africa, in 2019 I accompanied Gambian marine police officers when they detained 15 foreign vessels over the course of a week for labor violations and illegal fishing. All but one of the intercepted vessels were from China.
Earlier that year, during a month-long voyage aboard a hake fishing vessel heading into Antarctic waters from Punta Arenas, Chile, the only vessels we encountered were a dozen rusty Chinese trawlers. , which hardly seemed fit to navigate.
Aboard a South Korean squid fishing boat, in May 2019, I was able to see nearly two dozen Chinese-flagged ships file their way, one after another, into North Korean waters, in flagrant violation of United Nations sanctions. These vessels were part of the world's largest fleet of illegal boats: 800 Chinese trawlers fishing in the Sea of ??Japan, according to a recent investigation by the US news network NBC.
In July 2020, more than 340 Chinese fishing vessels appeared on the fringes of the biodiverse and ecologically sensitive Galapagos Marine Reserve. According to C4ADS, a global conflict investigation firm, many of these vessels were linked to companies associated with illegal fishing. Three years earlier, a Chinese flotilla of similar size arrived in these same waters, where authorities detained a vessel carrying some 300 tons of illegally caught fish, including endangered species such as filleted hammerhead sharks.
With 200,000 to 800,000 vessels, some as far away as Argentina, China has a fishing fleet unmatched in size and scope. Driven primarily by government subsidies, its growth and activities have largely been uncontrolled, especially since China has historically had few regulations on fishing operations. The dominance and global ubiquity of this fleet raises broader questions about how, why, and at what cost, China has launched so many vessels into the oceans.
Why has long been clear: geopolitical power and food security for China's 1.4 billion people. As the United States Navy has withdrawn from the waters of West Africa and the Middle East, China has been strengthening its fishing and naval presence. And in places like the South China Sea and the North Sea Route, in the Arctic, China has claimed valuable sea routes, as well as undersea oil and gas reserves.
"The scale and aggressiveness of its fleet puts China in command," says Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that few foreign countries have been willing to prevail over incursions by Chinese fishing boats into their national waters.
In terms of food security, much of the marine populations closest to the coast of China have been reduced, due to overfishing and industrialization, for which vessels are forced to venture further afield to fill their nets. According to a recent report by the Stimson Center, a security research group, the Chinese government says it has approximately 2,600 fishing boats in distant waters, making its fleet three times larger than those of these four countries combined: Korea South, Spain, Japan and Taiwan.
"Without their massive subsidy schemes, China's distant water fishing fleet would be a fraction of its current size, while most of its China Sea fleet would not exist at all," says Poling.
Over the past two decades, China has invested billions of dollars in supporting its fishing industry, says Tabitha Grace Mallory, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in Chinese fisheries policy. In 2018, total global fisheries subsidies were estimated to be US $ 35.4 billion, of which China accounted for US $ 7.2 billion. Of that amount, the vast majority went to what Mallory calls “harmful” subsidies, because they increase the size of fishing fleets rather than reducing them. These subsidies are intended for fuel and new vessels that increase the size of the fleet. Alternatively, a small portion of the state subsidies is used to fund the dismantling of the ships, according to Mallory.
The Government is also helping to defray the cost of new engines, more durable steel hulls for trawlers, and the armed security and medical vessels that will be anchored in the fishing grounds; allowing fishing captains to stay at sea longer. Chinese fishermen also benefit from the fisheries intelligence run by the Government, which helps them find the most abundant waters.
Daniel Pauly, principal investigator of the Sea Around Us initiative, belonging to the Institute of Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, said that "the subsidies have not only increased geopolitical tensions by allowing vessels to enter disputed regions" .
Pauly added: "They also play an important role in depleting fish stocks as vessels that would otherwise be out of service continue to operate."
Experts believe that sustainable fishing will not be possible as long as fleets receive financial assistance for overfishing. Ninety percent of commercial fish stocks monitored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have suffered from overfishing or outright exploitation, which means they exceeded their sustainable replenishment capacity, including the world's 10 most important commercial species .
China is not unique in terms of subsidies for its fishing fleet. According to a 2018 study published in the scientific journal Science Advances, led by Enric Sala, a resident explorer for the National Geographic Society, more than half of the world's fishing industry would not be profitable at its current scale without government subsidies.
Sala's study indicates that Japan spends more on subsidies for offshore fishing (in sectors of the ocean that are not under the control of any government) than any other country, accounting for about 20 percent of global subsidies. to high seas fishing: USD 841 million. Spain accounts for 14 percent of global fisheries subsidies, followed by China with 10 percent, then South Korea and the US.
But when it comes to scale, China leads by far. With more than 800 vessels on the high seas, Chinese vessels were responsible for more than 35 percent of the global fishing reported on the high seas in 2014, more than any other country. Taiwan, the next country on the list, with 593, with the largest number of vessels, accounts for about 12 percent of that catch and Japan, with 478, accounts for less than 5 percent.
But subsidies are not just one of the main reasons why the oceans are running out of fish. By launching so many vessels into the seas around the world, subsidies can lead to excess fishing capacity, unfair competition, territorial disputes and illegal fishing, as captains strive to find less crowded fishing grounds.
"Simply put, this is like paying thieves to rob a neighbor's house," says Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, on the role subsidies play in promoting illegal fishing.
According to an index published in 2019 by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management, a British fisheries and aquaculture consulting firm, China has the worst score in the world for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
However, China is showing slight signs of improvement. In response to international pressure from ocean conservation groups and foreign governments, the Chinese government began tightening control of its fleet in recent years, despite skepticism from conservationists and fisheries experts.
In 2016, the Chinese government published a five-year plan to limit the number of fishing vessels in distant waters to less than 3,000 by 2021. It is unclear whether China is making progress towards this goal, because the government publishes little data on the number of vessels. . And in June 2020, Chinese fisheries authorities announced that they would suspend squid fishing seasons for Chinese vessels in some South American seas from July to November, arguing the need to allow squid populations to replenish. It is the first time that China has voluntarily closed a fishing season.
"I think the Chinese government is serious when it offers to restrict its distant water fleet," Pauly said. “Whether they can enforce the planned restrictions on their fleet is another question; in fact, I don't think they can control their fleets in distant waters any more than we control ours in the West. "
With a rapidly growing middle class, whose capacity to purchase seafood is increasing, the Chinese government boosted its aquaculture industry between 2015 and 2019, with more than USD 250 million in subsidies, with the aim of reducing dependence on the country of fish obtained in the open sea.
This measure, however, presents a new problem. To fatten their fish, most fish farms rely on fishmeal, a high protein powder, made primarily from wild fish from foreign or international waters. Also, aquaculture requires a lot of fishmeal; Before a farmed tuna reaches the market, for example, it can eat more than 15 times its weight in wild fish in the form of fishmeal.
Ocean conservationists warn that the voracity of fishmeal production is accelerating the emptying of the oceans, promoting illegal fishing, destabilizing the aquatic food chain and extracting protein sources necessary for local subsistence in the seas of countries. poorer.
“Fishing for large quantities of wild fish to feed increased demand for farmed fish doesn't make much sense,” says Sala. "Instead, a fraction of those wild fish could be used directly to feed people, with less impact on life in the oceans."
To meet the demand for fishmeal and fish oil, Chinese fisheries authorities said in 2015 that they planned to increase the amount of krill harvested in Antarctic waters from 32,000 tonnes to 2 million tonnes; although they pledged to stay out of “ecologically vulnerable” areas. Krill is a primary source of food for whales, which is why conservationists are concerned about the devastating effects of overfishing.
The role of subsidies in destabilizing international relations
In addition to the potentially devastating environmental consequences of overfishing and the collapse of fishing activity, such a large number of vessels at sea means increased competition in fishing areas, which could destabilize relations between countries and lead to violent clashes.
In November 2016, the South Korean Coast Guard opened fire on two Chinese fishing vessels that had threatened to ram patrol boats into the Yellow Sea. A month earlier, Chinese fishermen rammed and sank another South Korean motorboat in the same area. That same year, Argentina sank a Chinese vessel that, according to authorities, was fishing illegally in its waters. Indonesia, South Africa and the Philippines have had conflicts with Chinese fishing fleets. In most of these cases, Chinese vessels fished for squid, which accounts for more than half of the fleet's fishing on the high seas.
One of the reasons for such an excess in the Chinese fleet is that some of its fishing vessels pursue other purposes, not just fishing. These fishing boats, as part of the so-called “civil militia,” according to Poling, go to conflict-ridden maritime zones to monitor the waters and, on occasions, intimidate and ram fishing or police vessels from other countries. In addition to its subsidy program to support its distant water fishing fleet, China has a program that encourages vessels to operate in disputed waters within the sea of ??the China Sea, as a way to enforce China's claims. . These vessels enjoy many of the benefits of distant water fleets in addition to cash payments, since it is not profitable to operate in that region.
More than 200 of these militia fishing boats occupy the waters around the Spratly Islands of the China Sea, an area rich in fish and possibly also oil and natural gas, disputed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Satellite images show that Chinese fishing boats in the area spend most of their time anchored together in groups and are not fishing.
"The only reason small [Chinese] fishermen go to Spratlys is because they get paid to do so," Poling said. The presence of these fishing vessels accelerated the reduction of fish around the islands, which has caused clashes with fishing boats from other countries, giving China the excuse to build military installations on some reefs, in order to further toughen its claims on the territory.
Thanks to the subsidies, the Chinese fleet is not only the largest in the world, it is also larger than previously known. Similarly, the recent discovery of the nearly 800 Chinese trawlers illegally fishing in North Korean waters shows a new perspective on the disappearance of more than 70 percent of squid stocks in the Sea of ??Japan (also known as sea from the east).
By sending a previously unknown industrial fleet to fish in these forbidden waters, China has violently displaced smaller South Korean vessels, and is responsible for the decline in squid stocks that were once abundant. When the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked about findings documented by a new satellite technology from Global Fishing Watch, which tracks commercial fishing activities, and confirmed on my 2019 voyage aboard a South Korean squid fishing vessel , the entity said in a statement to NBC that it "conscientiously enforced" UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea, and has "systematically punished" illegal fishing, but did not confirm or deny the presence of Chinese vessels. in that place.
"They move very serious"
Chinese fishing boats, partly because they travel in groups and sometimes armed, are often aggressive towards their competitors or perceived threats. I was able to see this up close after my trip aboard a South Korean squid fishing boat heading to the shores of the Sea of ??Japan, where it was scheduled to document the presence of illegal squid fishing boats from China.
Our captain was a short, thin man in his 70s, with deep-set eyes and leathery skin like an elephant. On the morning of our scheduled departure, the hired crew members told the captain that they would not make the trip. They said they were too nervous to associate them with any North Korean-related report and to get close to Chinese fishing vessels.
The captain told me that we could still go to sea with his first mate, but that the boat would be difficult to handle, that it would be dirtier than normal, and that we would have to help him when asked.
Smelling like rotting bait and the floor slippery from previous fishing, the deck of the 60-foot-long wooden boat was a mess. The crew cabins were in chaos and the ship's engine broke down several hundred miles from shore, causing two hours of stress until we managed to fix it.
Shortly after dark on our first day at sea, the sound of a ship appeared on our radar. We scrambled to catch up with what turned out to be not just one vessel, but nearly two dozen, all sailing in single file one after the other, from South Korean waters to North Korea. All were waving Chinese flags and none had their transponders turned on, as required in South Korean waters.
We followed the boats, filmed them, documented their identification numbers, and after about 45 minutes, we launched a drone to better visualize them. In response, one of the Chinese ship captains honked the horn, turned on the lights, and then came abruptly toward us in a ramming maneuver - a warning. We held our course, but the Chinese ship continued to advance towards us. When she got 10 meters away from where we were, we swerved to avoid the collision.
Up to here our captain wanted to risk. After deciding that it was too dangerous to continue, the captain turned and began the eight-hour journey back to port, during which time he was unusually calm and a little nervous. "They are very serious," he murmured in reference to the Chinese fishermen, who, undaunted, continued their journey towards North Korean waters.
It was clear that the subsidies had not only turned the Chinese fishing fleet into a global force of unprecedented size and geographic scope. They also conveyed a sense of ambition, motivation, and fearlessness that few countries or fishing captains were willing or able to confront.
Source: dialogo-americas.com (translated from spanish)