A visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to South Pacific islands from May 26 to June 4 culminated in the establishment of multiple fisheries agreements with several island nations.
The United States and its allies suspect the agreements are a veiled attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to expand its influence in the region and to unfairly exploit the local fishing industry.
Among those concerned about the recent agreements is Charles Edel, Australia chair at the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“China has become the world’s largest perpetrator of illegal fishing,” Edel said.
“They have drastically depleted global fish stocks and undermined traditional livelihoods of many countries, so any steps taken to track, identify and curb such activity would have environmental and security benefits for the region.”
As Wang concluded the agreements in the South Pacific, the U.S. Coast Guard was patrolling the region to monitor illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. The Coast Guard conducts IUU patrols on behalf of the island nations in accordance with the U.S. Operation Blue Pacific.
Operation Blue Pacific is a maritime law enforcement agreement between the United States and the South Pacific island nations, including Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea. Its purpose is to help these island nations protect their economically important fishing industry. This includes deterring Chinese vessels from engaging in IUU fishing activities.
During the Quadripartite Summit (QUAD) in Tokyo on May 24, President Joe Biden announced an initiative to curb illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific region. In attendance were leaders from Japan, India, and Australia.
Biden’s plan involves the use of satellite technology to connect several existing monitoring centers in the region to establish a tracking system to monitor IUU fishing in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and South Pacific.
An important feature of the new tracking technology is the ability to identify and monitor illegal fishing vessels that attempt to hide their location by turning off their transponders.
A report released on March 30 by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), said China’s distant-water fishing vessels are frequently suspected of illegal harvesting. Their largest fishing effort is in the West African Exclusive Economic Zone, where more than 60 percent of the vessels use trawling nets. This highly controversial method of fishing is “so destructive that it can wipe out the countless marine life in a matter of minutes.”
In early 2020, the Ecuadorian Navy discovered that 150 Chinese fishing vessels had disabled their tracking systems so they could illegally trawl for fish off the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
The Ecuadorian Navy said the Chinese vessels did the same thing previously in 2017. Hundreds of their vessels were spotted in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, including one carrying 300 tons of protected marine wildlife, mostly sharks.
Masking the Size of Fishing Fleet
The number of Chinese distant-water fishing vessels has exploded in recent years, dwarfing the number of U.S. fishing vessels. China’s vessels can be found in nearly all the world’s waters, including in the economic zones of some countries.
A report published in June 2020 by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), said during 2017 through 2018, a total of 16,966 Chinese distant water fishing vessels were monitored. Of these, 927 were registered with other countries and 183 were found to be associated with IUU fishing. During this same period, the United States had fewer than 300 fishing vessels in operation.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs disputed these figures in a November 2020 report titled, “White Paper on China’s Distant Water Fishing Compliance.” The report stated China had approved only 2,701 distant water fishing vessels as of the end of 2019 and pledged that no more than 3,000 new vessels would be approved. Not included in the report was the number of vessels the Chinese were leasing to other countries or entering into fishing agreements with other countries.
The 2020 ODI report also revealed that Chinese authorities use a consensus management mechanism of the Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) to set higher quotas so as to obtain a higher share of the catch.
The report cited an example. During the 2014 meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the Chinese insisted on increasing their distant-water fleet in the region from 100 to 400 vessels. This was despite how scientists were already concerned the existing fleet could potentially jeopardize the albacore tuna stock.
Chinese Presence in South Pacific Fishing Industry Surges
Although Wang’s trip did not result in a regional agreement, China has signed fisheries agreements and established communication platforms with several countries in the region.
In November 2020, China signed a memorandum of understanding with Papua New Guinea to invest $200 million in an “integrated multifunctional fishery processing park” on Daru Island, off the Torres Strait between China and Australia.
Prior to that, on Nov. 9, 2018, China and Fiji signed a memorandum of understanding relevant to cooperative fisheries in the region and established a fish processing base in Suva, the country’s capital.
In August of 2019, the CCP’s official media Xinhua reported the Chinese state enterprise, CNFC Overseas Fisheries, established a partnership with the Republic of Vanuatu to build a tuna processing plant there.
However, in addition to using local fishing permits, the Chinese distant-water fleet is still involved in illegal fishing in the South Pacific.
In late January 2021, Vanuatu seized two Chinese tuna fishing vessels, accusing them of fishing illegally in Vanuatu’s territorial waters.
The Vanuatu incident occurred just one month after Palau, another Pacific Island nation, intercepted and detained a Chinese fishing vessel in its territorial waters on suspicion of illegally fishing for sea cucumbers.
To mend its image and further expand its fisheries presence in the South Pacific, the CCP hosted the first China-Pacific Island Countries Fisheries Cooperation and Development Forum in December of 2021. The meeting took place in Guangzhou, China during which the Chinese sought to increase its fisheries presence in the region and proposed the establishment of an “intergovernmental multilateral fisheries consultation mechanism” to address IUU fishing.
Record Catches Reduce Stocks
Although the many islands in the South Pacific have small populations, the region’s exclusive economic zone is vast and rich with a wide variety of fish. Tuna alone accounts for more than half of the total global supply. But the fishing technology used by these islands is not well developed.
For example, the land area of Kiribati’s 33 islands is 7,500 square kilometers with a population of just over 120,000. Its exclusive economic zone, extending outward 200 nautical miles from its coastline, has a sea area of 3.44 million square kilometers making it difficult to monitor the activities of distant water fishing vessels. To put this into perspective, Kiribati’s sea area is nearly the same size as China’s sea area, which is 3.88 million square kilometers.
China’s distant-water fishing fleet has maintained a large presence in the Pacific. The number of vessels has increased five times since 2012 and is continuing to grow. In 2016, China’s licensed vessels in the Pacific totaled 290, which is 50 more than all Pacific countries combined.
Heavy fishing in recent years has led to a decline in the Pacific’s marine stocks. According to WCPFC, the region’s tuna catch has increased year after year and hit a record 2.989 million tons in 2019. But at the same time, the Pacific bluefin tuna stock has been overfished. In 2020, the tuna catch fell to 2,668 million tons, a drop of 320,000 tons from the previous year.