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Chinese fishing fleet poses threat to Pacific island economies

Joseph Hammond

Across the Indo-Pacific, oversize fishing trawlers owned by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are using dragnets large enough to swallow a football stadium. Such illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens regional food security, including in the waters of American Samoa, Guam and Hawaii. For Pacific island nations, IUU fishing is also a national security threat.

“Tonga’s Navy is unable to police our entire EEZ [exclusive economic zone],” Lord Fusitu’a, a member of the Tongan parliament, told FORUM. “Impinging by the PRC within the EEZ is without a doubt present and, of course, impacts our food security. My concern, though, is why the PRC has been able to do this?”

An agreement with the United States allows Tongan officers to ride aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels to improve the island country’s enforcement capacity. Fusitu’a called for the international community and the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and U.S., to expand efforts to halt IUU fishing in the Pacific Ocean.

In the waters around Palau, IUU fishing by Chinese vessels may be aimed at punishing the island nation for its close relationship with Taiwan, The Guardian newspaper reported. Palau has asked the U.S. to develop new bases in the region, which could increase the effectiveness of naval and aerial patrols.

While several nations conduct IUU fishing, Fusitu’a said that the PRC’s deep-sea fleet — the world’s largest — is of paramount concern. The fleet has 16,966 vessels, such as the one pictured, the majority of which operate in the Pacific, according to a 2020 report from the U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute. Nearly 1,000 of those vessels are registered in other countries under flags of convenience.

The PRC was ranked as the worst offender of IUU fishing, according to the latest index by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

“Trawlers are a particular problem as they fish demersal species — groundfish close to shore — and therefore compete with local small-scale fishing efforts,” Peter Hammarstedt, director of campaigns for Sea Shepherd Global, a marine conservation nonprofit, told FORUM. The capacity of these industrial vessels far exceeds that of local fishing communities, endangering the livelihoods of fishermen and the nutrition of residents, he said.

Many Pacific island nations are also eager to end the use of drift nets, given their ability to kill sea life indiscriminately. Vanuatu pursued criminal charges and millions of dollars in fines against two captains of Chinese vessels in 2021 for drift-net fishing. While Beijing has pledged to shrink its fleet and phase out subsidies, a study by Canada’s University of British Columbia found that efforts to limit the PRC fleet’s bottom-trawling have been largely unsuccessful.

Trawlers fishing illegally in the waters of Tonga and other countries pose an existential threat to Pacific islands, where people rely on fish for 30% of their diet and more than 50% of their protein, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. This is compounded by economic losses to local fishermen and governments. Tuna fishing accounts for more than 45% of state revenues in the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tokelau and Tuvalu, according to Conservation International.

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor who reports from the Indo-Pacific region.



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