Chinese fishermen are damaging the livelihoods of South Americans through large-scale illegal fishing.
The fishermen have been visible in the Pacific Ocean for several years, and there’s nothing illegal about their fishing in international waters.
But according to Evan Ellis, an American expert on such matters, many of the fishermen have now begun entering several South American nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and that is illegal.
An EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the shore under rules set down by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Countries have the rights over the resources within their EEZs.
The close-in Chinese fishing has an impact on local fishermen who traditionally have relied on these waters for their livelihoods and can’t compete with Chinese trawlers and the big ships capable of refrigerating their catch.
The most numerous incursions by Chinese fishermen appear to target Argentina and Peru, although Chinese fishing boats have also been seen near Chile and Uruguay.
Much of what Evan Ellis has had to say about the most recent incursions and possible countermeasures and solutions to address them was first published the website Newsmax on Dec. 13.
Given the high demand for fish from a growing Chinese middle class, China’s distant-water fishing fleet has grown to the point where it reaches many locations around the world.
Much of the Chinese demand is for high-value fish and exotic species such as the now endangered tatoaba fish.
Shrimp and squid and a small species of porpoise which is mostly found near Mexico are also prized.
The tatoaba fish is much valued in Asia for the alleged medicinal properties of its bladder, according to Cliff White, writing for the Seafood Source website.
Totoaba bladders can sell for $1,400 and even as high as $4,000 in China, White reports. Other sources cite even higher prices.
Also endangered is the vaquita porpoise, a species of porpoise that is now estimated to number fewer than 100 because of illegal fishing.
The magazine Dialogo quoted Juan Carlos Sueiro, Peru’s director of the international organization OCEANA, as saying that Chinese illegal fishing has had its greatest impact on giant squid, cod, tuna, sharks, and totoaba.
Dialogo is a digital military magazine published by the U.S. Southern Command, which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Peru has a capable navy, which can block some EEZ violations.
But Chinese fishing companies have bought into the Peruvian fishing fleet, which gives those companies rights to fish in Peru’s national waters.
Meanwhile, the Chinese fishing group Dalian Huafeng has expanded its presence in those waters through the purchase of Arbumasa, a Spanish fishing company which operates there.
Argentina and Ecuador push back
Several Latin American countries have used their navies and coast guards to push back against Chinese incursions but not enough to deter many of the Chinese fishermen for long.
In March 2016, an Argentine Coast Guard ship intercepted a Chinese vessel operating illegally in the waters of Argentina’s EEZ.
According to Evan Ellis, who is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College, Chinese vessels had routinely violated the zone, as they had in numerous other countries in the region.
But in this case, the Argentine Coast Guard ship fired a warning shot to halt the Chinese ship’s escape to international waters.
When the ship, the Lu Yan Yuan Yu, responded by trying to ram the Argentine vessel, the Coast Guard ship responded, inadvertently capsizing the Chinese vessel.
The Chinese crew escaped by swimming out to other Chinese vessels.
Argentine Navy submarines were then assigned to chase down illegal fishing vessels off southern Argentina, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
In August, 2016, Ecuador jailed 20 Chinese fishermen for up to four years for illegally fishing in the Galapagos Islands marine reserve, where they were caught with some 6,600 sharks.
The bigger picture
It has been evident for the past several years that China’s distant-water fishing has added to stress on the world’s fish stocks.
China accounts for some 35 percent of global demand, according to some estimates.
Its fishing vessels operate not only to feed China’s appetite for fish but also for profit on a wider scale.
According to Ellis, the Chinese deepwater fleet has become a key vendor of fish sold to Europe and other parts of the world.
The Chinese fishing fleet has grown to an estimated 3,400 vessels, roughly 17 times larger than the United States fishing fleet.
Until recently, China’s fishing fleet expansion has been supported by government subsidies for fuel and vessel building.
But the Chinese government is well aware of protests from Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere against the damage that Chinese fishing boats have done to foreign fisheries and fishermen.
Toward the end of last year, the government stopped calling for an expansion of the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture released a five-year plan that restricts the total number of offshore fishing vessels to under 3,000 in 2021.
Worth watching in the future are Chinese provinces and fishing companies that would still like to expand their fishing catch rather than curb it.
According to Evan Ellis, the first steps for the region to respond to the challenge of the Chinese deepwater fishing fleet include:
· Greater public awareness of and documentation of the problem;
· Greater dissemination of data on the threat by the coast guards and and navies of the region; and
· Greater attention to the problem by the region’s media.
Ellis says that governments in the region should also raise the issue in a more serious fashion with their Chinese counterparts through multilateral dialogues.
Governments could pursue this though institutions such as the Organization of American States (OAS), and during bilateral dialogues.
Ellis acknowledges that the needs of each of each Latin American nation are different.
But he argues that all of those affected by Chinese fishing could benefit from acquiring more extended-range patrol boats supplemented by maritime patrol aircraft and long-endurance drones.
In his view, the United States would have a potential role to play, both in helping its Latin American partners to obtain those capabilities and by sharing its intelligence with them when appropriate.
Responding to the challenge may also require judicial reform to ensure the prompt and effective prosecution of violators, Ellis says.
In the meantime, the Peruvian government has made public satellite surveillance data on 1,300 commercial fishing vessels plying Peru’s waters.
The country aims to use the platform called Global Fishing Watch (GFW) as a tool to fight illegal fishing and overfishing.
“This is the beginning of a global-scale revolution in the transparency of industrial fisheries,” said Juan Mayorga, a researcher at the sustainable fisheries group.
“Users of the GFW can detect if a boat is fishing during the closed season or if it sails into a protected area,” said Mayorga.
An example of how the GFW can help combat illegal fishing in Peru occurred in September this year when authorities intercepted a Chinese vessel near the northern port city of Chimbote for not having a permit to operate in Peruvian waters.
Inside the vessel, they found 19 tons of Humboldt squid that had probably been illegally extracted inside Peru’s EEZ.
GFW also enables the monitoring of fishing fleets during the night. Squid fishing is done only at night when vessels shine bright lights to attract squid.
Sueiro of OCEANA said that illegal fishing costs Peru about $360 million a year.
An investigation by the nongovernment organization Oceana Peru revealed that between January 2015, and September 2016, at least a dozen Chinese vessels had entered Peru’s EEZ without Peruvian authorization and had possibly engaged in illegal fishing.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.