The massive presence of the Chinese fishing fleet in the waters of Latin America has contributed to making China one of the world’s leading seafood exporters, but also the worst when it comes to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The situation took a turn in late 2023 as Chinese vessels have been subjected to inspections from the U.S. Coast Guard and partner nations to address their questionable practices in the Pacific Ocean, NBC News reported.
Thanks to measures implemented by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), the U.S. Coast Guard has been conducting inspections of several Chinese vessels, NBC News reported on December 22. SPRFMO is a 14-member intergovernmental organization that seeks to ensure sustainable fisheries in the South Pacific Ocean.
The measures allow member states, including Peru, Chile, and Ecuador, to monitor one another’s fishing and shipping activities to combat overfishing in international waters. In October, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted its first boardings and inspections on the high seas off the coast of Peru, focusing primarily on Chinese fishing vessels.
U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Paul Ledbetter, commander of the Coast Guard Cutter Alder, told NBC News upon returning from a mission that “there’s nothing wrong with fishing. It’s just you’ve got to do it in a way that’s responsible, that ensures that it will still be there for years to come.”
Juan Carlos Sueiro, director of Fisheries at Oceana Peru, agrees with a caveat. “China’s attitude hinders efforts to improve transparency and sustainability in fishing practices globally,” Sueiro told Diálogo on January 21. “It’s crucial to take into account Beijing’s resistance to laws, satellite tracking regulations, and government subsidies to its distant water fishing fleets.”
China has the world’s largest distant water fishing fleet, with more than 17,000 fishing vessels. Each year, some 400 vessels navigate close to the exclusive economic zones of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil to fish for squid, Argentine news site Infobae reported.
The Chinese fleet actions in the oceans include turning off satellite tracking devices, using twin vessels, or hoisting flags of Latin American countries, to evade detection or control and keep up their illegal activities. In addition to illegal fishing, other crimes have been recorded on these vessels such as slavery, forced labor, smuggling, and human trafficking.
In one operation off the Peruvian coast, a U.S. Coast Guard search plane took Peruvian officials to observe the extensive offshore fishing fleet. During a nighttime flyover, the magnitude of the Chinese fleet was evident, with illuminated decks pulling squid from the depths of the ocean, The Maritime Executive magazine reported.
Supply ports and transshipment of squid to huge refrigerated cargo ships allow vessels to remain in Pacific and Southwest Atlantic waters for months at a time, Global Fishing Watch indicated.
“Although China places temporary restrictions on its squid fishing vessels in the South Pacific, these limitations are not based on criteria for squid sustainability,” Sueiro said. “They are more influenced by vessel operational dynamics, commercial considerations, and market fluctuations.”
According to NBC News, the United States has made it a priority to assist South American countries such as Peru police their coastlines to ensure responsible and equitable fishing. “We want to see the rules-based order upheld,” Lt. Cmdr. Ledbetter said.
Over the past five decades, there has been a 50 percent decline in ocean life, U.S. magazine Newsweek reported. Ninety percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, overfished, or depleted, with the Chinese fleet being the largest significant contributor to this depletion.
An “armada” of Chinese ships has helped transform the Pacific into “a huge factory,” Max Valentine, campaign director for Oceana, a Washington-based conservation group, told NBC News. “They fish for thousands of hours, which is an astronomical amount when you consider how targeted, on a very small area that fishing pressure is.”
Chinese vessels report only one-twelfth of their total catch, Infobae reported. An emblematic case of illegal fishing occurred in Ecuador in 2017, when the Chinese vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng illegally entered the Galápagos Marine Reserve with some 500 tons of fish, including vulnerable species such as hammerhead sharks.
Valentine told NBC that one reason China might comply with U.S. inspections of illegal catches is its trade with the United States, one of the world’s largest importers of legal seafood. “We’re talking billions of dollars that is lost to China if this market is closed out.”
For Sueiro, China’s seeming amenability in recent U.S. inspections of its fleets in South American seas won’t stop it from keeping up with IUU fishing, “seeking to operate in a discreet and biased manner to avoid conflicts, media attention, and improve its global image.”
Given the magnitude of illegal fishing and its repercussions, the backing of the U.S. Coast Guard is a sound measure to establish forms of control that can limit the expansion of IUU fishing or those activities that go beyond regulated fisheries, such as overfishing by the Chinese fleet, Sueiro added.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that one of China’s central strategies is to be present in all of the world’s oceans. This is not a minor issue, so it also requires the convergence of diverse efforts, approaches, and strategies to obtain effective results against IUU fishing,” he concluded.