In late March 2019, the Ecuadorean Navy detected 245 Chinese fishing vessels in their maritime border, near the Galapagos Islands. The situation, far from the first incident of its kind, put the country on alert. Chinese vessels fish indiscriminately, taking advantage of insufficient surveillance in the area to decimate the marine fauna.
Ecuador had already detected 60 Chinese industrial fishing vessels near the Galapagos in 2018. In 2017, authorities intercepted cargo ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 inside a marine reserve. The ship was carrying 300 tons of shark fins, hammerhead sharks, and silky sharks. The crew was prosecuted for environmental crimes.
Other countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay have also suffered from voracious Chinese fishing in their seas. Juan Carlos Sueiro, head of the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Oceana, said the problem is growing in Latin America, and authorities’ response is weak.
“These Chinese vessels work in the same way: they fish in international waters, near the maritime border of Latin American countries,” Sueiro told Diálogo. “Almost every country has detected Chinese vessels entering their waters illegally. It’s not new and happens on a daily basis.”
Rodrigo García Píngaro, head of the Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans, an Uruguayan NGO, said that Chinese vessels fish regardless of species’ endangered status. They seek mass shoals and prey for species that garner high prices in Asia for their alleged medicinal effects. Some of the most affected species are the giant squid, cod, tuna, black hake, shark, and the totoaba.
“China is hungry for seafood that can't be found in other seas; here there are still stocks of valuable fish,” García told Diálogo. “They use ghost nets to catch everything without distinction, whatever species they can, hoping they’ll be well paid.” Ghost nets are nets left behind by fishermen, or lost in the high seas.
Guillermo Caille, executive director of Natural Patagonia Foundation, says that the situation in Latin America is part of a systematic attack China conducts in the world’s seas to sustain the Asian nation’s consumption and exports.
In its 2018 report, “State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said that China is the main producer of fish and fish products worldwide, and, since 2002, the main exporter.
This not only implies that the Asian nation seeks areas rich in resources to meet its needs, but also intends to set up logistics bases, such as ports, shipyards, and fish processing plants near areas to be exploited.
In Latin America, for instance, Chinese company Shangdong Baoma intends to develop an economic free zone with a port, shipyard, and processing and packaging plant for frozen fish in the region of Punta Yeguas, east of Montevideo, Uruguay. The company seeks to begin construction before the end of 2019.
“The main reason for China to attempt to develop the port in Montevideo is that these fleets lack a fishing base on land, outside Asia. They depend on foreign companies to repair their fishing vessels, stock and supply, as well as planning for and making their captures. This causes loss of efficiency and benefits, which increases production costs,” says the NGO Oceanosanos in its report, “Background on the Chinese Terminal Investment Project at Montevideo Port 2016-2019”.
Faced with the Chinese threat, the United States supports Latin American authorities to avoid greater damage to the ecosystem. For example, the Ecuadorean and U.S. navies conducted exercise PASSEX in the Pacific Ocean on November 22, 2018, which focused on preventing, dissuading, and eradicating illegal fishing.
“Combating unreported, and unregulated fishing is a top international priority,” said to the press U.S. Navy Commander Jamie Hopkins, commander of the USS Wayne E. Meyer, one of the vessels that participated in the exercise. “It's a worldwide problem estimated to cost the global fishing industry billions of dollars a year.”
However, the fight is not an easy one. China is decimating marine species and seeking to expand onto land by setting up ports and fish processing plants. Confronting China's intentions requires a regional commitment to increase surveillance and prevent the Asian country from destroying the marine resources in the region.