“It’s terrifying”: can we stop China’s vast armada of fishing boats? | Fishing industry

The recent discovery by the Ecuadorian Navy of a vast armada of fishermen of 340 Chinese vessels just off the biodiversity-rich Galapagos Islands has sparked outrage both in Ecuador and abroad.

Under pressure after Ecuador’s forceful response, China has given mixed signals that it may start rotating its vast international fishing fleet. Its embassy in Ecuador declared a “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal fishing and announced this week that it was toughen the rules for its huge flotilla with a series of new regulations.

But with 325 of those 340 ships remaining off Ecuador, and local naval commander Darwin Jarrín said last week that nearly half of those ships had intermittently cut off their satellite communications – breaking the rules of the regional fisheries management organization – the episode showed how difficult it is for small nations to stand up to China’s distant fleet even as it descends on the archipelago that inspired the Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

China’s vast fishing fleet, by far the largest in the world, overfishes seas far beyond the world’s view than the islands known for their giant turtles and iguanas. From the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa to the Korean Peninsula, the fleet has moved into the waters of other countries – turn off transponders to avoid detection, depleted fish stocks and threatening the food security of often poor coastal communities. In East Asia, fishing boats may be the vanguard of an aggressive attack geopolitical strategy aimed at asserting land claims.


This week’s new Chinese regulations call for tougher penalties for companies and captains involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated activities – or INN – peach. But environmentalists watching the Galapagos episode are skeptical.

“Beyond this unilateral announcement, the problem remains the same,” explains Pablo Guerrero, director of marine conservation at WWF Ecuador. “These boats operate without observers on board, they do not return to port, they tranship their catch mother ships, which unload catches in ports. So in a nutshell, they fish all the time, the fishing operation does not stop.

The fleet is a large and complex network. Among the hundreds of ships are fuel suppliers, fishing boats, tender boats and refrigerated cargo ships, some of which camouflage unregistered boats, Guerrero says. Many ships spend long periods at sea where shocking human rights violations have been reported.

NGO World Fisheries Watch and the Overseas Development Institute The think tank (ODI) used cutting-edge technology and data analysis to reveal that the size and extent of China’s deep-water fleet has been grossly underestimated.

An Ecuadorian navy officer looks at a radar on August 7 after the predominantly Chinese-flagged fleet was detected in an international corridor that borders the Galapagos Islands. Photograph: Santiago Arcos / Reuters

The ODI found that the fleet numbered 16,966 vessels, five times more than previous estimates. On the other hand, the American offshore fleet comprises 300 boats.

In 2017, as part of its 13th five-year fishing plan, China announced its intention to cap the size of the fleet at 3,000 ships by 2020.

“We were shocked by the results as we were expecting 4,000 or 5,000 vessels,” says Miren Gutiérrez, the lead author of the ODI report.

The research, which lasted for more than a year, also found that nearly 1,000 of the vessels were using “flags of convenience” and that at least 183 vessels were involved in suspected IUU fishing, for which China has ranked the least performing country in a Global index 2019.

Questions and answers

What are flags of convenience?

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A vessel flying a flag of convenience means that the owner has registered the vessel in a country other than their own. The ship flies the ensign or flag of that country, known as the flag state, and operates under its laws, which are generally more lax than those of the owner.

For a shipowner, the benefit of this arrangement includes relatively fewer regulations, lower employment requirements, and therefore cheaper labor, cheaper registration fees, and lower taxes. high or even zero.

For crew members, the disadvantages tend to lower labor standards, fewer rights and little protection. They are opposed by the International Federation of Transport Workers.

Panama, which has the largest ship registry in the world, followed by Liberia, operates an “open registry”, allowing foreign owners to register ships under its flag. It guarantees the anonymity of the owners, which makes it difficult for them to be accountable.

The practice began in the 1920s in the United States, when cruise ship owners registered their ships in Panama so that they could serve alcohol to their passengers during Prohibition.

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“At first glance, it looks like a very fragmented fleet, but we suspect that the core of it is probably in the hands of a few companies,” says Gutiérrez. Recent research shows that the Chinese government heavily subsidizes fishing through tax exemptions, mainly on fuel, to a value of $ 16.6 billion (£ 12.6 billion) per year, or 47% of the total global fisheries subsidies.

“Most of this overfishing isn’t illegal, that’s the problem,” says Gutiérrez, as most of it takes place in international waters. Most of the fleet’s vessels are trawlers – banned in Chinese territorial waters and known to damage ecosystems by dragging nets along the seabed. Other common vessels are longliners, for larger fish such as tuna or shark, and squid, which generally operate in deeper waters.

“To change the dynamic, you need radical transparency,” says Philip Chou, an expert in deep-sea fishing at Oceana, a marine conservation group. “So far, the evidence has not shown that [the Chinese government] went beyond rhetoric.

China should open up about its catches, the real-time tracking of its fleets, the ownership of fishing vessels and the opaque bilateral or regional agreements it has made with low-income coastal countries, Chou said. In West Africa, for example, a 2018 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that 90% of Ghanaian-flagged vessels had Chinese participation.

Protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Quito, Ecuador, called earlier this month for a fishery check.
Protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Quito, Ecuador, called earlier this month for a fishery check. Photography: José Jácome / EPA

China’s self-proclaimed reshuffle offers changes to the rules for transshipment on the high seas – the movement of cargo from one vessel to another – as well as reforms to deep-sea fishing. He also announced two three-month fishing moratoria: one west of the Galapagos, between September and November, and another from July in the South Atlantic near Argentina.

The world’s largest seafood exporter is also considering ratifying the Agreement on Port State Measures, the first internationally binding agreement in which ports around the world pledge not to allow illegal or unregulated fishing vessels to land their catches.

“It’s a significant concession,” says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation. “But in the context of global fishing, it’s not enough, it’s almost not enough.”

China transported around 15% of the world’s reported fishing catch in 2018, according to the United Nations Fisheries Agency, more than double the countries ranked second and third. But the lack of transparency means it’s impossible to really know how much seafood humans take from the ocean amid an alarming decline in marine life over the past half-century.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that illegal fishing has an annual cost of up to $ 23 billion. FAO also calculated that nearly 60 million people worked in fisheries or aquaculture in 2016, 85% of them in Asia.

Ecuador is one of the few small nation states to have repelled Chinese flotillas. In the hotly contested South China Sea, Indonesia sent F-16 fighter jets as well as Navy, Coast Guard and fishing boats to push back 63 Chinese fishing boats and four Coast Guard vessels. . of its waters in January.

Ecuadorian Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin, surrounded by navy admirals, at a press conference in the port city of Guayaquil about the Chinese fleet operating near the Galapagos Islands.
Ecuadorian Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin, surrounded by navy admirals, at a press conference in the port city of Guayaquil about the Chinese fleet operating near the Galapagos Islands. Photograph: Reuters

But North Korean fishing boats may have fared less well in dealing with China’s “black fleets”, amid reports of “ghost ships” stranded on Japanese shores containing the bodies of China. North Korean fishermen. In its backyard, the Chinese fleet has a formidable reputation for systemic illegal fishing and aggressive tactics in the face of competitors or foreign patrol boats.

China signed a key UN Fish Stocks Agreement in 1996 but never ratified it. It is a member of seven regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, but its distant water fleet operates outside these frameworks, explains Mercedes Rosello, director of Ocean House, a non-profit legal consultancy that monitors IUU fishing.

“When you look at thousands of ships, the rules and mechanisms adopted by this flag state are of tremendous significance,” said Rosello.

The United States, Japan and the EU, which account for around 70% of the global seafood market, must take proactive measures to prevent IUU fish from Chinese vessels from entering international supply chains, Trent said.

“[Without] Large-scale structural change by China and the global ocean governance system to ensure that the Chinese obey the law, ”he said, the world’s fish stocks would continue their precipitous decline.

“The people who suffer first and most seriously are almost always the coastal communities who depend on these fisheries for their survival, well-being and food,” he says.

“Exactly what is happening in the Galapagos [Islands] is happening all over the world and it’s terrifying.