China’s Rampant Illegal Fishing Is Endangering the Environment and the Global Economy

If the term “illegal fishing” conjures images of small numbers of scattered vessels independently pirating the sea’s resources, think again. The problem of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing stems increasingly from state-supported deep water fishing fleets, including massive trawlers accompanied by sustainment vessels, freezers, and transport vessels. Operating continuously in large groups with global reach, these industrial-scale flotillas are able to drag massive nets, literally capturing everything in their wake, often without regard for fisheries laws or consent of the coastal nations.

It’s how a sharp increase in IUU fishing by Chinese fishing boats over the past decade has come to threaten the world’s oceans, deprive seaside nations of their economic livelihoods, and undermine international laws and norms.

A 2015 study found a 50 percent decline in ocean life over the last 50 years. According to United Nations data, approximately 90 percent of the world’s remaining fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. These fishing fleets target squid, tuna, mahi mahi, sharks, and countless other species.

Although IUU fishing affects the entire globe, coastal states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are particularly hard hit. This “strip mining” of the world’s oceans robs developing nations of tens of billions of dollars annually, threatening the livelihood of local fishing communities, depriving citizens of critical food resources, and lowering regional nations’ Gross Domestic Product. Many of these nations lack the maritime domain awareness and enforcement capabilities to stave off these rapacious fishing fleets.

And the People’s Republic of China’s expansive fleet of distant water fishing vessels are disproportionately responsible for this trend.

After exhausting fish stocks in Chinese waters in the early 2000s, China helped grow their fleet through government subsidies, producing larger fishing boats capable of operating farther and longer from the Chinese mainland.

Chinese distant water fishing fleets now comb broad swaths of the Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Pacific Oceans as well as waters off South America, East and West Africa, Antarctica, and the South Pacific Islands.

The Chinese public consumes approximately a third of the seafood caught globally, and the country is also a leading seafood exporter. A recent study by the Financial Transparency Coalition reported that eight of the 10 companies responsible for nearly a quarter of all reported cases of IUU fishing are based in China. Many of these companies have come under scrutiny for their deceptive hiring practices, forced labor, abuse of migrant recruits, and other exploitative practices that amount to slavery at sea.

By China’s own data, their distant water fishing fleet has nearly doubled in size over the last decade and is now the largest one across the world, nearly equal to the rest of the world’s distant fleets combined. Data from 2017 and 2018 indicated China’s fleet numbers between 12,000 to 17,000 vessels, although counting the exact volume is problematic, because China often tries to conceal fishing boat ownership.

illegal Chinese fishing
Chinese boats banded together with ropes, chased by a coastguard helicopter and rubber boats pacted with commandoes, after alleged illegal fishing in South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea off the southwestern coast county of Buan. South Korea’s coastguard mobilized 12 ships, four helicopters and commandoes for a special three-day crackdown on illegal fishing by Chinese boats this week.
DONG-A ILBO/AFP via Getty Images

According to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, the total number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the South Pacific increased tenfold between 2009 and 2020. Peruvian authorities observed that these fleets are so large that when they fish at night with bright lights to attract giant squid, the light footprint at sea is more massive than the capital Lima, a city with more than 10 million people. PRC ships off Senegal catch as many fish in a week as all Senegalese boats catch in a year.

To obscure their presence from local authorities, Chinese fishing vessels sometimes turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal, then operate in other nation’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) without consent to exploit fishing opportunities, and then reactivate their AIS once out of the EEZs. One study reported nearly 90 percent of 300 fishing boats “going dark” near Argentina’s EEZ in 2019 were Chinese-flagged.

Even in the absence of deceptive practices, many states adversely affected by illegal fishing currently lack the ability to reliably detect and respond to fishing activity, even when they suspect or know it is occurring in their EEZs. Chinese fishermen routinely exploit these gaps.

But the US actively works with partners to help fill these gaps and uphold international laws, norms, and regulations.

The US government’s stance on this issue is crystal clear: We have declared that IUU fishing now constitutes a major environmental, economic, and national security challenge. In June, President Biden characterized IUU fishing as one of the “greatest threats to ocean health” and a contributor to the collapse of “economic growth, food systems, and ecosystems of numerous countries around the world.”

In October, the US Interagency Working Group on IUU Fishing, which consists of 21 federal agencies, published the “National Five-Year Strategy for Combating IUU Fishing.” This important report underscores the need to collaborate with other nations to promote sustainable fisheries, management, and governance. It also highlights the need to enhance monitoring, control, and surveillance of maritime fishing operations. In addition, the report notes that the United States will work to ensure that only legal, sustainable, and responsibly harvested seafood enters our market.

The National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office plays a role in addressing this global challenge along with many interagency partners. In addition to orchestrating intelligence resources and helping to facilitate information sharing against this problem, we are working closely with foreign partners and the private sector to increase maritime domain awareness by delivering tools and a variety of support services. We do this in concert with the US Navy as a key tool provider, regional Combatant Commands as part of their theater security cooperation plans, and the Department of State as the lead for overall diplomatic initiatives with partner nations.

The world has come together many times to address challenges in our oceans, including the protection of endangered whale species and a moratorium on harmful drift nets and other destructive fishing gear. Mitigating the impact of IUU fishing requires the same concerted and enduring effort.

No one nation should be allowed to overexploit ocean resources in crisis conditions for its own benefit at the expense of all other nations. The future of the world’s oceans and the sustainability of its biodiversity to support mankind for decades and centuries hence depends on our collective ability to curb IUU fishing. For now, red emergency lights are flashing on this issue.

Mike Studeman is a Rear Admiral and Director of the National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office (NMIO) and Commander, Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.