Fishing for trouble

The blue economy is at risk and China is a major culprit. China is the kingpin of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF) globally. Although fish do not necessarily observe national maritime boundaries, migratory fish are some of the most economically valuable and are thus extensively targeted. Increasing unlawful fish catches means fewer fish will reproduce yearly and the often-destructive practices employed by illegal fishing organizations destroy the biota of the ocean. Thus, widespread illegal fishing creates a cycle of destruction that results in fewer fish growing to maturity and shrinking numbers of fish available for harvest by legitimate fishermen.

China is not only the world’s biggest seafood exporter, but its population also accounts for more than a third of global fish consumption. Having depleted its own domestic fisheries long ago, Chinese vessels are seen across coastlines of other countries, exploitatively fishing to satisfy both Chinese and international demand for fisheries.

Chinese fishermen target the coastlines of other countries, including those in West Africa and Latin America whose waters are poorly monitored due to a lack of the requisite policing infrastructure. The capacity of most Chinese fishing fleet outsizes local boats from Senegal or Mexico as they can capture in one week as many as these local boats might catch in a year.

Chinese distant-water ships are infamous for belligerence and are often guarded, even on foreign waters, by armed Chinese Coast Guard vessels. Chinese commercial fishermen can be considered as paramilitary personnel in disguise whose atrocities the Chinese government can classify as private actions. Disguised as mere fishermen, these private combatants help assert territorial dominance, especially pushing back fishermen or governments that challenge China’s sovereignty claims on other countries’ territorial waters. The exploitative operations of Chinese vessels in developing countries’ coastlines make the latter particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. While economic losses from illegal fishing may be difficult to quantify, it includes lost tax revenue, lost fishing industry jobs earnings, and the depletion of food supplies.

Chinese IUUF activities have continued unperturbed, despite provisional regulations. The European Union (EU), for instance, implemented an indirect enforcement system in 2010 that has proven effective in prompting sweeping changes in many states guilty of illegal fishing practices. Unfortunately, that system has only been used against less powerful countries that could not challenge the Europeans. Countries with less clout such as Philippines, Cambodia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand have all received stern warnings or been penalized by the EU while China continues to escape reprimand, with its far-reaching, and properly documented illegal maritime activities.

To avert the looming danger from this global maritime security threat, China must be held to account for its blatant abuse of the world’s common food supply. The EU must exercise its own mechanism of enforcement by issuing a yellow card notice to China. With China as the largest exporter of fish and its related products to the EU, and ranking first in global fish and aquaculture trade, the EU cannot afford to continue ignoring China’s illegal maritime practices.

Also, the corporations and individuals involved with China’s massive distant water fishing fleet are prime candidates for targeted sanctions. Identifying fleet owners may pose a challenge, but it is not impossible. Satellite technology can be deployed to gather evidence to support such cases. The flag state regime offers another opportunity and both flag states and/or flags of convenience can be liable for the misconduct of ships operating under their flag.

While fishing may not strike many as an issue worthy of immediate concern, the prospect of collapse for a primary source of protein for more than 10% of the world’s population is worthy of attention. In addition, evading regulation leads to the degradation of the global food supply as well as environmental damage in many cases. In my opinion, the reach and repercussions of China’s at-sea ambitions highlight anew that the real price of fish is rarely what appears on the menu.