A Greenpeace study released on Wednesday shows that Chinese companies have been illegally fishing off of West Africa, taking advantage of weak enforcement there. The number of Chinese-flagged or Chinese-owned fishing boats operating in Africa soared from only 13 in 1985 to 462 in 2013, the international NGO noted.
60 of the 114 cases of illegal fishing examined in an eight year period involved vessels of the state-owned China National Fisheries Corporation. “While the Chinese government is starting to eliminate some of the most destructive fishing practices in its own waters, the loopholes in existing policies lead to a double standard in Africa,” said Ahmed Diame, a Greenpeace Africa ocean campaigner.
Illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in South Korea’s waters has also grown into a serious and alarming threat. A study from 2014 estimated that 675,000 tons of fisheries products were illegally taken from South Korean waters in 2012 by China – with a value of around $1.2 billion. “If anything, the situation has worsened since then,” Lee Kwang-Nam, head of the Fisheries Policy Institute in Seoul and author of that recent study, said earlier this month. About 2,200 Chinese vessels have been stopped and fined by South Korea for illegal fishing in the past four years, and the number of fishermen arrested increased from 2 in 2010 to 66 in 2013, noted AFP. According to Lee, the undermanned coastguard feels overwhelmed and only manages to seize or arrest less than 1% of Chinese poachers. “Our fisheries resources are relatively well-preserved thanks to strict regulations… but may face serious shortages if this pace keeps up,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, China announced that its annual fisheries ban on the disputed waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, also claimed by Vietnam, will be in effect from May 16 to August 1. China justifies the seasonal fishing moratorium, which began in 1999, to allow fish stocks to recover. “This is China’s international responsibility and obligation,” said a spokesman of its foreign ministry. However, Vietnam strenuously objects to what it calls China’s “worthless decision” that violates international law and Vietnam’s sovereignty. It sees China’s move as yet another bullying tactic in the ongoing dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea (which includes oil and gas deposits). The truth lies somewhere in between—the ban is not being enforced just to spite and weaken Vietnam, because some 9,000 Chinese fishing ships will cease operations too. However, if Beijing can maximize its long-term fish resources while advancing its geopolitical interests, it will do so. Regardless of Hanoi’s opposition, China is expected to step up its coast guard patrols in the area, according to the Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre.
China may have the easiest time expanding its fishing off Antarctica, where there are no territorial claims and marine life is plentiful. In late April, China announced it will increase its harvest of Antarctic krill (a type of crustacean) seven-fold, using its massive factory trawling ships. Fishing around Antarctica is governed by the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a treaty to which China is a signatory. And while the treaty’s 4.2 million metric ton catch limit for Antarctic krill is much higher than the amount currently harvested, its enforcement relies on countries’ self-reporting.
Given its track record elsewhere, it’s no surprise that China’s Antarctic fishing expansion has raised the alarm from other fishing nations and conservationists.