Overfishing in its own Chinese waters means that the world’s largest foreign fleet sails to the other side of the world in search of shellfish off South America.
The AP news agency and US-based Spanish-language broadcaster Univision were invited aboard the Sea Shepherd environmental organization’s Ocean Warrior ship this summer. During the 18-day journey, they came into close contact with Chinese vessels off South America.
There they saw for the first time: nearly 300 Chinese ships had sailed half the world to fish for humboldt squid, a ten-armed squid that lives at great depths in the Pacific Ocean off South America.
The Ocean Warriors crew wrote down the electronic identification of 37 of the vessels on paper before disappearing from the radar. Two of the vessels went dark when disabling the mandatory tracking that shows the position of the vessels. Others continued to send signals, but with different numbers, a sign of possible confusion.
The largest fleet in the world
This summer’s expedition was triggered by international unrest in the summer of the previous year when hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted fishing for squid near the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago that is home to some of the world’s most threatened species.
China’s deployment in this vast and desolate area is no accident. Decades of overfishing have increasingly driven the country’s foreign fishing fleet away from national waters.
China’s foreign fleet is the largest in the world and officially consists of 3,000 vessels. But the fleet can probably consist of several thousand more vessels.
Keeping such an extensive fleet at sea, sometimes for several years without stopping, is both a technical achievement made possible by billions in government subsidies, and a source of national pride, in line with what the American space program has been. for generations of Americans. .
Fear of overfishing
Beijing authorities say they have zero tolerance for illegal fishing. They refer to recent changes such as the introduction of a temporary cessation of squid fishing in the high seas, as evidence of the country’s environmental management.
It is also part of the case that those who now criticize China, including the United States and Europe, have for decades looted the world’s oceans.
However, the enormous size of China’s fleet and its recent arrival in South American waters have created fears that stocks will be depleted in these areas. There are also concerns that the absence of effective control could lead to an increase in illegal fishing.
Recently, the United States Coast Guard declared that illegal fishing was the greatest threat to maritime safety. Previously, piracy was at the top of the list.
At the same time, environmental activists want restrictions on fishing, as part of ongoing negotiations on the first open sea treaty. The treaty, when completed, could lead to a significant increase in international cooperation to regulate traditionally illegal maritime areas that cover almost half the planet.
Of the 30 vessels the AP observed closely, 24 had a history of complaints of labor abuse, previous convictions for illegal fishing or indications of possible violations of maritime laws.
Overall, this underscores how the high seas near the American continents, where the United States has long dominated and where China is trying to gain influence, has become a magnet for the worst offenders in the fishing industry.
Specifically, 16 of the ships have sailed with the mandatory radio signal transmitters turned off, issued various electronic identification codes, or sent information that does not match the declared name and location of the ships. These are discrepancies that are often related to illegal fishing, although the AP saw no evidence that Chinese vessels were involved in illegal activities.
Six ships were owned by companies accused of forced labor, including the Chang Thai 802, which according to the Indonesian crew on board has had to remain at sea for several years.
Another nine vessels are accused of illegal fishing in other parts of the world, while a large oil tanker that supplies the fishing fleet, Ocean Ruby, is operated by a company linked to a company suspected of selling fuel to North Korea, a violation of UN sanctions.
Another ship, the Fu Yuan Yu 7880, is operated by a Nasdaq-listed Pingtan Marine Enterprise affiliate whose US executives had their US visas revoked following allegations of ties to human trafficking.
Call it looting
“Beijing is exporting its overfishing problem to South America,” said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, campaign manager for the Netherlands-based Sea Shepherd.
– China is largely responsible for the looting of sharks and tuna in Asia, he continues.
– With such a history, should we really believe that they will deal with this new fishery in a responsible way? He says.
The Humboldt octopus lives in nutrient-rich streams off the southwestern coast of South America. The occurrence is overwhelming, and some researchers believe the number may be increasing due to ocean warming and after its natural enemies, sharks and tuna, have been caught.
But biologists say they have never faced a threat similar to the industrial explosion posed by Chinese fishing in these waters.
– Wild vest
The number of vessels flying the Chinese flag in the South Pacific has increased tenfold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 557 vessels in 2020, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), an intergovernmental group of 15 countries. to guarantee the conservation and sustainability of fishing.
In the same period, the catch has increased from 70,000 tonnes to 358,000 tonnes.
Fishing is almost always done only at night, as each fishing boat turns on hundreds of powerful lights to attract the fast-moving squid. The concentration of light is so intense that it can be seen from space in satellite images. There you can see the great fishing fleets shining brightly as if they were great cities on land.
– It’s really like the West. No one is responsible for enforcing the law, says Hammarstedt.
Experts warn that although octopus is found in large numbers, it is vulnerable to overfishing. It is not known how many humboldt squid there are, but experts point out that the species has disappeared from the waters of Argentina, Mexico and Japan.
– If you have access to a great resource and it is easy to stock up, then it is easy to fall into the trap and think that the resource is unlimited, which is like the number of stars in the sky. If humanity is in favor of it, there is no limit to the damage we can inflict, says marine biologist William Gilly of Stanford University.
Criticism of China’s fishing in distant waters has led to certain reforms. Last year, the country introduced stricter sanctions against companies caught for crimes, including tampering with radio transmitters.
The Chinese authorities have also strengthened the requirements to send signals from ships, introduced a ban on calls to blacklisted vessels, and introduced a pause for squid fishing out of season in maritime areas outside of Argentina and Ecuador.
Neither the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Directorate of Fisheries, nor the COFA (China Overseas Fisheries Association) industry association has responded to the PA’s repeated requests for interviews or responses to detailed lists of questions.
Marine biologist Daniel Pauly believes that much of the criticism of the Chinese fishing fleet in the Galapagos may be related to the increasing anti-Chinese currents in the United States and the sensitivity to the growing presence of Beijing in what has traditionally been seen as the Washington backyard.
Introducing restrictions on deep-sea fishing is something that should be discussed as part of the open sea treaty negotiations, and it may be a more effective way to restrict China’s activities than to intimidate the country, Pauly believes.
– China does not do anything different than what Europe has not done in exactly the same way. The only difference is that everything China does is so great that you see it, says Pauly.