Authorities in Palau detained a Chinese fishing vessel and its 28 crew members in mid-December 2020, accusing them of illegally harvesting sea cucumber in the Pacific island nation’s territorial waters, according to The Guardian newspaper.
Pacific officials say Chinese fishing fleets have ventured farther into their waters — and remained for longer periods — in recent months, but this marked the first time a Chinese crew had been intercepted in Palau’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“It’s unlawful entry,” Victor Remengesau, director of Palau’s division of marine law and enforcement, said, according to The Guardian. He noted that Palau had to balance concerns about the crew’s detention and COVID-19 as it remained one of the few places in the world still free of the coronavirus. “We may care about COVID and the spread of COVID, but we can’t just let people do whatever they want and disguise” illegal activity.
Pacific nations have been on high alert for incursions by fishing fleets from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The London-based Overseas Development Institute warned in a 2020 report that “China’s distant-water fishing fleets have been traveling further and farther afield, and its companies have been building more and more vessels to meet the rising demand for seafood.”
Just weeks before the Palau incident, the U.S. State Department announced that it would spend U.S. $200 million on programs for small island nations in the Western Pacific to counter the PRC’s problematic behavior, including IUU. That will help nations such as Palau develop ways to protect their fishing industries from unwanted PRC competition.
“We’ve seen a range of increasingly problematic behavior, including [China’s] assertion of unlawful maritime claims and the ongoing militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea, predatory economic activities including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and investments that undermine good governance and promote corruption,” Sandra Oudkirk, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said during a teleconference to discuss the U.S. aid to Pacific nations.
The PRC’s IUU fishing and harassment of vessels in the EEZs of other Indo-Pacific countries threatens sovereignty and endangers regional stability, U.S. national security officials have said. With a fleet of at least 800,000, the PRC depleted its domestic fisheries long ago and leads the world in IUU fishing, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
“Through generous subsidies and government direction, the Chinese Communist Party has subsequently incentivized part of its fleet to travel further afield to satisfy both China’s domestic consumption and the international market,” according to a November 2020 Foreign Policy report titled “China is fishing for trouble at sea.”
“Despite this, China has avoided any tangible consequences for its actions, while smaller states are strong-armed into compliance with international standards and maritime law,” Foreign Policy reported.
Worldwide, overfishing leads to the annual loss of tens of billions of dollars in income and tax revenue and the depletion of jobs and food supplies. One-fifth of the global catch is believed to originate from IUU fishing, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Much of the illegal catch comes from the EEZs of nations such as Guinea, the Philippines and North Korea — known targets of Chinese fishermen, according to Foreign Policy.
“IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime threat,” according to “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook,” a U.S. Coast Guard report. “If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal states and increased tension among foreign-fishing nations, threating geo-political stability around the world.”
The organization Global Fishing Watch used mapping tools to analyze fishing vessel activity near Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Between July 13 and August 13, 2020, Chinese vessels logged more than 73,000 hours in the area fishing for squid, according to Global Fishing Watch and the advocacy group Oceana.
“This massive and ongoing fishing effort of China’s fleet threatens the Galapagos Islands, the rare species that only call it home and everyone that depends on it for food and livelihoods. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of China’s huge distant-water fishing fleet on our oceans,” Dr. Marla Valentine, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency analyst, said in a news release. “The situation playing out in the Galapagos should raise serious questions and concerns about the impact China’s massive fishing fleet is having on the oceans it sails.”
Oceana documented Chinese vessels that apparently disabled their public tracking devices and provided conflicting vessel identification information to enable illicit activities. (Pictured: The Ecuadorian naval vessel LAE Isla San Cristobal conducts a joint patrol with the U.S. Coast Guard to detect and deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing near the Galapagos Islands in August 2020.)
“The governments of the world must work together to ensure that all seafood is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced and honestly labeled to protect the oceans and the people who depend upon them,” Beth Lowell, Oceana’s deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns, said in a news release.