Eight of the 10 companies responsible for nearly 25 percent of known illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are from China. So says a recent report by the Financial Transparency Coalition (FTC), a global network of civil society, governments, and experts.
According to the study, China and its state-owned companies have the world’s largest fishing fleet operating in distant waters, with at least 3,000 vessels. The illegal activity moves up to some $23.5 billion a year, with total economic losses estimated at $50 billion. “This makes IUU fishing the third most lucrative natural resource crime after timber [exploitation] and mining,” says the FTC report released in the last quarter of 2022.
Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to the Chinese fleet’s illegal activities. “IUU fishing in Argentine territorial waters is estimated to account for between $1 billion and $2.6 billion per year. Considering that Argentina’s annual bottled wine exports were valued at $817 million in 2021, IUU fishing is more than twice the size of Argentina’s wine industry,” the report says.
The Chinese fleet’s predatory behavior
Why is it that the vast majority of companies carrying out IUU fishing are Chinese? “One issue is quantitative. The largest distant water fleet is Chinese. There are more than 3,000 vessels that go around the world, of which between 600 and 700 are on the edges of South American seas,” Milko Schvartzman, an Argentine specialist in marine conservation and member of the nongovernmental organization Círculo de Políticas Ambientales, told Diálogo.
“The other reason is qualitative. Chinese vessels are not only more numerous, but they also engage in a higher percentage of illegal fishing. And almost the totality of the Chinese fleet engages in poaching, that is unregulated and unreported fishing,” Schvartzman said.
According to the expert, these Chinese vessels operate in areas where there are no regulations or fish unregulated species in regulated areas. In addition, they do not comply with any international standards for labor norms or navigational safety.
“They are vessels that turn off the satellite tracker, which is the AIS [Automatic Identification System] so that they aren’t detected. And they are the ones that do the most illegal fishing in the world. So it is the fleet with the worst behavior and the most massive,” Schvartzman said.
The threat in South America
The Chinese fleet is especially harmful in South America, a study from ocean conservation organization Oceana indicates. Between January 1, 2018 and April 25, 2021, Oceana analyzed fishing vessel activity along the border of Argentina’s territorial waters using AIS data from Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an independent non-profit organization founded by Oceana in partnership with Google and technology firm SkyTruth.
The AIS devices transmit data such as vessel name, flag state, and location. “Of the fishing visible in GFW, Oceana documented more than 800 foreign vessels logging more than 900,000 total hours of apparent fishing. The analysis also revealed that 69 percent of this fishing activity was conducted by more than 400 Chinese vessels,” Oceana said.
Many of these vessels are linked to the Chinese state. Such was the case of the vessel Lu Rong Yuan Yu 668, which a coast guard vessel of the Argentine Naval Prefecture detected and pursued in 2020 as it was fishing inside the Argentine Exclusive Economic Zone.
“That ship is Chinese state-owned, which gives us an idea of the influence of the Chinese state and its complicity with those operations,” Schvartzman said. “The Chinese state knows what is happening, knows when those vessels turn off the tracking system, knows where and how they are fishing,” the expert added. “The Chinese state is a direct accomplice not only for knowing about the illegal activities of its fleet, for allowing them and not sanctioning them, but because there are vessels that carry out illegal fishing and are owned by the Chinese-state.”
Illegal artisanal and industrial fishing
According to Schvartzman, it is important to differentiate between illegal fishing carried out by industrial vessels coming from other continents and illegal fishing by artisanal vessels from the countries of the region. “While illegal fishing among the countries of the region is wrong, these are not comparable.”
“In other words, [illegal fishing by vessels from the region] is illegal, it is a predatory activity that violates the rules, but it is not an activity that can be compared with foreign industrial fleets because of the size of the vessels and the seriousness of the fact that they come from other regions of the planet, with subsidized fuel and slave labor,” he said. “It is not the same that Peru captures an illegal Chinese fishing vessel, as happened in 2019, than Ecuador captures an illegal Peruvian artisanal fishing vessel. It is not the same vessel size, nor the same geopolitical situation, nor the same environmental, economic, and social impact that each of these vessels generate.”