Experts: PRC not doing enough to thwart illegal fishing in South China Sea

Experts: PRC not doing enough to thwart illegal fishing in South China Sea

Top Stories | Feb 25, 2020:

Joseph Hammond

U.S. officials are calling on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to stop turning a blind eye to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the South China Sea.

Vice Adm. Daniel Abel, U.S. Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations, discussed the PRC’s role in combating IUU fishing at the second annual Ocean Security Forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on January 7, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Coast Guard put in place a system 15 years ago for Chinese riders aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels to help the PRC institute reforms, Abel said. Such cooperation grew out of an agreement in 2000 involving Canada, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States to establish the North Pacific Coast Guard Agencies Forum.

Flash forward to 2020.

“We were helping the Chinese,” Able said, referring to U.S. efforts to help the PRC enforce anti-IUU fishing regulations. Today’s China Coast Guard, however, is not what it was 15 years ago. “It’s huge,” Abel said. “It’s bigger than we are.”

This is true both in the number of vessels in the respective fleets and also in their size. The world’s largest coast guard vessel is believed to be the 12,000-ton China Coast Guard cutter 3901. Similarly, enormous is China’s state-subsidized fishing fleet, which along with Taiwan accounts for 60% of the world’s long-distance fishing. “Fishing has become an instrument of national power,” Abel said.

The PRC has pledged to cap its fishing fleet at 3,000 vessels this year. Until the mid-1980s, China was a marginal player in long-range fishing operations. Its recent expansion, however, has put pressure on global fishing stocks. Today, 93% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are fished at maximum levels or are being overfished, according to China Dialogue Ocean, a service of London-based China Dialogue Trust, which bills itself as a charity that promotes communication across cultural and language barriers on environmental issues. (Pictured: Chinese fishing boats head back to port in China’s eastern Jiangsu province.)

“Sovereignty issues are more important to China than IUU fishing,” said Tabitha Mallory, a leading expert on the PRC’s policy regarding the South China Sea, “so the coast guard will be used to help advance Chinese fishing and will definitely not enforce regulations as much over its own vessels as it will vessels for other nations.”

The PRC claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea — a claim unrecognized by the rest of the world.

Speaking at the Ocean Security Forum, Mallory added that growing negative perceptions of the PRC regarding IUU fishing is driving the country to undergo some reform efforts. The PRC is a member of seven fishing treaties and management organizations, which require it to take measures at its ports to stop IUU fishing.

It has taken small steps. Beijing revised its fisheries law to require the blacklisting of vessels that violate fishing laws. Critics say the revised law is a step in the right direction, but they emphasize that it does not cover electrofishing and other controversial practices, China Dialogue Ocean reported. Electrofishing employs a direct electric current to attract and temporarily immobilize fish for easy capture.

A 2019 report from Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime ranked the PRC last in an index of countries involved in IUU.

“There is a growing trend internationally to treat IUU fishing as transnational organized crime,” Peter Hammarstedt, a director with the nongovernmental organization Sea Shepherd told FORUM. “Unfortunately, the Chinese government is not riding the wave that is diversifying the law enforcement toolbox that can be used by prosecutors to combat IUU fishing, as Chinese policy continues to treat IUU fishing as an administrative problem, not a criminal one.”

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor who reports on defense issues in the Indo-Pacific region.