On November 1, an Associated Press released a report describing an incident involving Chinese fishing boats and the U.S. Coast Guard in August of this year.
The Chinese fishing fleet is known for its predatory activities in the world’s oceans. As a result, many countries have complained to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the entities in charge of regulating and legislating fishing quotas in international waters. In addition, overfishing and illegal fishing in territorial waters put governments and conservation organizations on alert.
The situation set the U.S. Coast Guard in motion. Under the legal protection of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, they began a ten-day patrol in search of illegal fishing.
On August 6, not far from the Galapagos Islands in the eastern Pacific, the Coast Guard ship detected a fleet of about 100 Chinese squid fishing vessels and began its approach to inspect if the vessels were in compliance with the rules and not fishing illegally.
Even though China is a signatory to the same international treaties that endorse this type of inspection, three of the vessels sped away. Still, one turned sharply and aimed straight at the Coast Guard Cutter “James,” forcing it to maneuver to avoid a collision.
Police Lieutenant Hunter Stowes, who was on the American vessel, stated, “For the most part, they wanted to avoid us, but we were able to maneuver effectively so that we were safe the whole time.”
This aggression against the Coast Guard on its first inspection mission violated international maritime protocol. Boarding on the high seas by vessels on official representation to verify compliance with laws is considered legal thanks to conventions unanimously adopted in 2011 under the UN Fish Stocks Agreement.
The experiences of the first Coast Guard raid against illegal fishing were not released until more than a month after the event. Nor was there any discussion of the altercation with the three Chinese vessels or the naming of the vessels. Apparently, the Biden administration is analyzing the situation and the possibility of blacklisting the offending vessels for fishing in the Pacific.
However, reactions from the CCP were not long in coming. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a formal protest to the American government. In a statement to the AP they declared, “The behavior of the United States is unsafe, opaque, and unprofessional.
“We demand that the U.S. side stop its dangerous and erroneous inspection activities.”
They also accused the U.S. of conducting the inspections without following COVID protocols, endangering the lives of seafarers.
This accusation was disputed by the Coast Guard, who said the inspection group were all vaccinated and wore the proper protective gear, as seen in photos taken during the mission.
Among the details of the inspection procedure leaked from internal sources who prefer to remain anonymous, the name of one of the ships that fled from the Coast Guard was revealed as the Yong Hang 3. It sails under a Panamanian flag of convenience but belongs to the Chinese fishing fleet. It transports the fish back to China, leaving the rest of the smaller vessels to continue fishing in the area. This vessel appears to have serious allegations against it, including ignoring orders from the Panamanian maritime authorities to cooperate with the Americans.
Ship owners use flags of convenience usually to reduce tax costs or to take advantage of less stringent regulations. In the case of the Chinese vessel, it could be to hide their activities.
The fish-eating machine
The CCP claims to have 2,600 fishing vessels operating in distant waters, making it the largest fleet in the world. To corner the marine wealth, and after depleting resources in nearby waters, the CCP boosts this industry with heavy subsidies and few regulations, which means that when it comes to complying with international laws, they are always willing to turn a “blind eye.”
As Peter Thomson, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, said, “To put it bluntly, this is like paying thieves to rob your neighbor’s house.”
A usual maneuver used by ships in the fleet is to turn off their transponders (tracking devices) for poaching in territorial waters. As a result, several clashes with Latin American naval forces have occurred. For example, in the maritime territory of Argentina, a coast guard cutter sank a Chinese fishing boat that tried to ram it after it was discovered fishing illegally.
The area surrounding the Galapagos Islands, part of Ecuador’s territorial waters, is a magnet for the Chinese fishing fleet because of the abundance of fish, especially squid, which accounts for about half of the total catch. Almost every year, they gather near the territorial limit. These waters are part of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which has a unique biodiversity. In July 2020, about 340 Chinese vessels were in the area. In this last year, the number rose to 476.
In August 2017, an Ecuadorian judge sentenced the crew of a Chinese ship to up to 4 years in prison for illegal fishing within the waters near Galapagos after finding 300 tons of nearly extinct or endangered species on board. A total of 6,600 sharks were counted, including hammerheads.
China has signed international treaties prohibiting shark finning; however, it does not prohibit shark finning in its territory.
Human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced the abuses committed against the crew, including members from other countries. They are forced to work long hours for a meager salary and under deplorable conditions. In Montevideo, Uruguay, the arrival of at least one corpse every two months during the last six years of the Chinese fleet has been recorded.
The testimony of a Chinese fishing boat crew members that illegally fished for sharks in the Pacific showed the world the subhuman conditions they endured.
Working days of 18 hours, drinking desalinated water of poor quality, and without adequate food caused the death of two of their companions. Their bodies were thrown into the sea.
The lack of interest of the CCP to end this type of practice, and the scarce or almost null participation at the time of collaborating with other nations, shows that limiting fishing exploitation, species conservation, or human rights are not on their agenda.