Four South American countries prepare to challenge Chinese fishing abuses at COMM9

A fleet of more than 300 mostly Chinese-flagged fishing ships that caused consternation among the governments of Ecuador and Peru this summer when it was spotted fishing around their respective exclusive economic zones, has continued to fish in the Pacific Ocean around South America, and affected countries are coordinating actions to stop it.

The fleet was spotted by Ecuadorian maritime officials in mid-July as it arrived outside of the Galápagos Marine Reserve in international waters near Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone. The fleet was subsequently accused of shutting off its GPS trackers to enable it to fish illegally in protected waters without being detected.

Since then, the Chinese fleet has continued southward into Peru, with some vessels arriving in Chilean waters. Reporting that the country’s fishing service, Sernapesca, is “on alert,” Chilean news media company T13 said that over 100 Chinese ships are “all over Chile” and at times have entered the country’s EEZ.

Sernapesca has kept a close eye on the Chinese vessels and has so far issued 11 reports as to the whereabouts and activities of the fleet. While the country’s navy has pledged to protect Chile’s sovereign space, Sernapesca has said that it is still concerned about the vessels’ presence, but that in monitoring the fleet it has found the vessels are moving too fast to perform any fishing activities. Officials suspect the fleet is maneuvering to get into the Atlantic waters off the coast of Argentina.

In fact, according to Argentinean news outlet Infobae, a total of 27 Chinese fishing vessels have already crossed the Straights of Magellan from Chile and remain just outside of Argentina’s EEZ; another 10 ships are reportedly on their way to Argentinean waters from South Africa.

According to nonprofit investigative media organization InSight Crime, which focuses on covering illegal activity in Latin America, problems with mass gatherings of Chinese fishing vessels near South American EEZs have been occurring since at least 2016, but until recently, regional coordination has been lacking.

On 4 November, in a landmark example of increasing joint efforts in the region to combat potential illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by the Chinese fleet, the governments of Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia issued a joint statement condemning IUU fishing and specifically calling out the “large fleet of foreign-flagged vessels.” The statement committed the group to greater information-sharing efforts and to take joint action to condemn acts of IUU fishing that occur in their EEZs through the Permanent Commission to the South Pacific (CPPS), a maritime regulatory body in which the four countries hold equal membership.

The countries are also expected to highlight the issue at the next meeting of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, COMM9, taking place between 21 January and 1 February, 2021.

Chinese fishing in South American waters is costing the continent dearly, according to Alfonso Miranda Eyzaguirre, president of the jumbo squid group Calamasur, writing in an opinion piece in Peruvian newspaper Expreso.

“Between 2014 and 2019, the number of Chinese ships that ‘officially’ fished from mile 201 of Grau’s Sea [the official name for the part of the Pacific Ocean under Peru’s control], increased 142 percent, from 261 to 631. Consequently, the South Pacific high seas catch by these vessels have decreased in that period from almost six tons per unit of tonnage, to 2.14. There has also been an increased risk of illegal fishing,” Miranda Eyzaguirre said. “Thanks to the work of entities that investigated the facts in a technical way, [it was demonstrated that] the wrongdoers have turned off satellite equipment for long hours when they are near the coast of Peru, or they falsify their position. Organizations such as Global Fishing Watch and HawkEye360 have managed to uncover this misconduct in detail.”

Miranda Eyzaguirre called for increased Peruvian coordination with Chile and Ecuador “to forge a solid group with common interests” in the fishing industry.

“It cannot be, in application of the precautionary approach to fisheries management, that the Chinese fleet continues to grow uncontrollably in a context in which uncertainty prevails over the minimum criteria for fishing to be developed sustainably,” he said. “Peru should lead at the next SPRFMO meeting, to be held in January 2021, a proposal to close access to more distant-water flagged ships.”

During the SPRFMO meeting, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile are expected to propose amendments to the current conservation and management measures (CMM). One of them is Ecuador's proposal to modify the CMM of the giant squid (CMM 18-2020) fishery to have observers on board 100 percent of the ships on the high seas by 2027. Another of Ecuador's proposals calls for the elimination of offshore transshipment benefits of the Asian distant-water fleet. And all three countries are expected to call for investigations of those vessels, which are expected of having committed illegal squid fishing.

According to the IUU Fishing Index, compiled by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, IUU fishing is a major threat to ocean ecosystems, undermining efforts to sustainably manage global fisheries and conserve ocean biodiversity. It is also a significant economic and social disruptor, being detrimental to the legal fishery trade and linked to organized crime. The depletion of fish stocks through IUU fishing threatens global food security, along with the livelihoods of some 40 million people who are employed worldwide in capture fishing, plus millions more in associated industries.

Illegal fishing constitutes the sixth-most lucrative criminal endeavor globally, with estimated annual revenues of USD 15 billion to USD 36 billion (EUR 12.3 billion to EUR 29.6 billion), according to a 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity. The Chinese fishing fleet – estimated at 15,000 vessels by the Overseas Development Institute – is by far the largest in the world, and China is the country with the worst rating in illegal fishing in a 2019 Global Initiative report.

“IUU fishing is also often found to be associated with many other forms of transnational organized crime, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking and piracy, not to mention the exploitation of weak and corrupt elements of national management regimes,” Global Initiative Deputy Director Tuesday Reitano said.

According to Miranda Eyzaguirre, the China’s IUU fishing is not affecting just the environment. Fishery products from China and Taiwan have been added to a list of commodities associated with forced labor in the latest edition of a U.S. government report on child and forced labor globally. And the U.S. Department of Labor claims the Chinese distant-water fishing industry is using forced labor to catch the squid and tuna, which is shipped home to China for domestic consumption, as well as processing for sale to American and European buyers.

In the latest turn of events, executives from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China-based distant-water fishing firm Pingtan Marine Enterprise Ltd., listed publicly on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange, had their travel visas revoked as part of an escalation in U.S. sanctions against China over alleged involvement in IUU fishing.

The seafood industry has a critical role to play in curbing IUU abuses by the Chinese fleet in Soluth America, according to Walton Family Foundation Senior Program Officer Teresa Ish.

“We see emerging sustainability practices happening in China. We don’t expect China and [countries in Northern Europe such as] Germany to be in the same place. China is relatively new to having discussions about sustainability, but we also know we can’t meet our goals if China takes 20 years to get to the same place that Northern Europe is,” she said, speaking at the Latin American Summit for Fishing and Aquaculture Sustainability in October 2020. “The seafood industry has a critical role in eliminating IUU and labor abuses. Not just in their own supply chain, and not just in their source, but in those processes that harm people, the planet, and the reputation of the industry. This will require alignment around expectations on transparency, and expectations that the government have appropriate roles in regulation and capacity to actually address IUU fishing and human rights abuses.”

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard


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