This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States Coast Guard has called out China’s massive distant-water fishing fleet for its extractive practices in the waters of its Southeast Asian neighbors and off the coasts of Central America and West Africa.
The criticism came on Thursday as the Coast Guard unveiled an ambitious new strategy for tackling illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU), and as Vietnam detained a Chinese fishing boat for intruding into waters off its coast in the Gulf of Tonkin.
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said that illegal fishing had overtaken counter-narcotics and anti-piracy as the most important priority for maritime security around the globe, noting that it “threatens a host nation’s ability to protect their stable resources.”
“It’s bigger than catching a few boats with illegal tuna,” Schultz said at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“This is really about systemic violations of sovereign nation rights. It’s about threatening sovereignty, economic security, a weakening of the global rules-based order, and that’s why I think the coastguard has an opportunity at this time to put some lines of effort together here to really get after a threat.”
The strategy report unveiled at Thursday’s event listed three priorities: better intelligence and detection of the actors behind illegal fishing for more effective anti-IUU enforcement, countering state-sponsored “predatory fishing,” and multilateral cooperation.
Sally Yozell, director of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center think tank, said that combating IUU fishing was one issue where both the Obama and Trump administrations sought to take action.
“Illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing really hurts honest fishermen,” she said in an interview with Radio Free Asia, but noted that it was now also being viewed more explicitly as a security concern.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s new strategy singles out for attention China’s state-sponsored fishing fleets. Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of the U.S. military’s Southern Command – whose area of responsibility covers the Caribbean, Central America and Latin America — said Thursday that the Coast Guard’s combating of IUU fishing would be part of the U.S. “great power competition” with China.
China has the largest distant-water fishing fleet in the world and is also the number one source of IUU fishing, according to the IUU Fishing Index, which ranks countries on their enforcement practices.
“On the one hand, China is trying to do better on paper. There’s new fishing rules and regulations and all the rest. However, they don’t seem to be enforcing their fleets, which is a really big deal whether it’s in West Africa, the Pacific, or North Korea,” Yozell said.
Yozell believes China’s distant-water fishing fleet is likely larger than official numbers show, too, as China classifies fishing boats operating in waters it claims as part of its domestic fishing fleet. China maintains it has “historic rights” to nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, including portions of its Southeast Asian neighbors’ exclusive economic zones. China has asserted its claim to the disputed waters with fishing fleets in the past, backed up by its powerful China Coast Guard (CCG).
On Thursday, Vietnam’s coastguard took action in the Gulf of Tonkin where an agreement between Vietnam and China on fishing cooperation expired at the end of June.
Vietnamese state media reported that the coastguard caught two Chinese fishing vessels intruding into Vietnamese waters off the northern city of Mong Cai. One vessel fled and the other was detained along with its nine crew. The vessel and crew were subsequently released.
Vessel tracking data seen by Radio Free Asia shows two more Chinese fishing vessels were operating Friday within 200 nautical miles off of Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam, near the submerged Vanguard Bank area. Another fishing boat sailed within 50 nautical miles of Tuy Hoa, further north up Vietnam’s coast, on Tuesday. Frequently, Chinese fishing vessels pass through or start to operate in the South China Sea, and turn off their Automatic Identification Signal (AIS) to avoid detection.
China has also been accused of exploiting the waters off the coast of West Africa in the past. The Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council published an open letter in May accusing Chinese fishing trawlers of masquerading themselves as Ghanaian companies to circumvent local regulations against foreign fishing.
Hundreds of Chinese commercial fishing vessels hovered outside the exclusive economic zone of Ecuador from June through August, logging more than 73,000 hours while fishing for squid in the biodiverse waters off the Galapagos Islands, according to a recent report by the environmental non-profit Oceana. China’s rapacious squid-hunting fleets have depleted the livelihood of North Korean coastal communities and driven North Korean fishermen to a deadly level of desperation, a landmark report by NBC News found in July.
“It’s pretty much a big issue wherever China fishes,” Yozell pointed out. “There’s just a lot of unreported [fishing]. I’d say that’s the biggest problem in the IUU. A small island state or a less developed state … where they have less capacity to enforce and monitor, may provide a legal license for a foreign vessel to fish for a certain amount. And then that vessel may take two or three or five times as much as they’re supposed to. And that’s the unreported. That’s just taking advantage of countries who are not able to enforce management and quota and licenses.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is apparently honing international partnerships and stepping up its presence in the Pacific to counter this. The commandant promised a greater presence of its ships, more capacity-building, and more coastguard-to-coastguard cooperation among the Pacific Islands and Oceania, where the U.S. holds overseas territories like Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and maintains Compacts of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau.
However, Yozell expressed lingering questions over whether the U.S. Coast Guard was capable of carrying out everything promised in its new strategy.
“They haven’t received additional resources in their budget to handle IUU,” she said. “The Coast Guard is one of the most stretched agencies. That’ll be the big key. They can talk the talk, but will they walk the walk with additional resources to implement it?”