A leaked document originating from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis – part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – has recommended the creation of a multilateral coalition with South American nations led by the U.S. to challenge China's illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and trade practices.
The document was obtained by news service Axios and revealed in an article published 23 March.
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 for contribution to global illegal fishing in a 2019 Global Initiative report.
Beijing has made distant-water fishing a geopolitical priority, employing state-subsidized private Chinese fishing fleets as a means to extend its power to distant areas around the globe, according to Axios.
That power was felt off the waters of South America in July 2020, when a fleet of around 300 mostly Chinese-flagged ships began fishing near the exclusive economic zone around Ecuador’s Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the world’s richest fishing areas and a hotbed of natural life. The maneuver threatened to upset the delicate ecosystems of the Galapagos, with ships overfishing stocks, not respecting animals at risk of extinction, turning off tracking devices, and with crew members polluting the area by throwing waste overboard, according to environmental NGOs.
For several months, the fleet continued to fish in the seas around South America, affecting countries including Peru, Chile, and Argentina. In January 2021, at the annual meeting of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, these four countries moved to coordinate actions to stop IUU fishing in the waters off their coasts, citing its threat to their economic and environmental security.
However, an unnamed senior U.S. administration official told Axios it was the U.S. government’s opinion that South American navies lack sufficient resources to properly monitor and patrol their own waters. Now, several US government agencies are "taking a look at this in light of [President Joe Biden’s] priorities… [including] deepening cooperation with allies and partners on the challenges we face to our economy and national security," the official said.
The agencies reportedly involved in the initiative are the U.S. Coast Guard, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of State. The initiative follows up on previous initiatives by the U.S. Coast Guard to tackle IUU fishing in the Pacific last fall, with Agence France-Presse reporting the U.S. was considering permanently stationing patrol vessels in America Samoa.
"South American countries probably would welcome a coalition effort to increase trade pressure on China and enforcement of fishing standards," according to the document, labeled sensitive but unclassified. It assessed with "medium confidence" that China is likely to "continue exploitative fishing practices in South American waters despite recent actions by governments and an intergovernmental organization to limit these activities" and with "high confidence" that continued Chinese fishing in South American waters would "cause continued economic harm to U.S. domestic fisheries as a result of anticompetitive tactics."
It also calculated with "medium confidence" that South American countries would welcome a coalition to increase the enforcement of fishing standards.
Judging on South American countries’ past actions in response to China’s IUU fishing, there should be ample support.
In July last year, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Committee for the Sustainable Management of the Jumbo Flying Squid in the South Pacific (CALAMASUR), which includes industry stakeholders from Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and OPRAS – the Organization for the Protection of Resources in the Southwest Atlantic – to establish cooperation and a framework to combat IUU fishing.
“In particular, this cooperation strives to eradicate illegal fishing through the sustainable management of resources beyond the jurisdictional boundaries of coastal states … Due to their migratory condition, these resources along with other species of the ecosystem, are subject to irregular and predatory exploitation by foreign long-distance fishing fleets,” the MoU stated.
Then in September, Peruvian National Society of Industry’s Fishing and Aquaculture Committee signed an MoU with OPRAS committing to better manage biodiversity in waters deemed a main supply point for Chinese demand for seafood and fishmeal. The document formed the basis of a cooperative partnership between private firms, producers, and non-governmental bodies to work together to stop IUU fishing and commit to the sustainable management and conservation of marine resources.
And in November, the governments of Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia issued a joint statement condemning IUU fishing, 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.
South American countries are not the only nations taking steps to address this issue. Most recently, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) recently announced the launch of a new CAD 7 million (USD 5.5 million, EUR 4.7 million) program designed to track vessels deliberately avoiding automatic location devices. The program, called the Dark Vessel Detection Program has the goal of reducing IUU fishing by identifying vessels that are deliberately switching off automatic tracking devices.
Last November, U.S.-based commercial satellite operator HawkEye 360, which specializes in radio frequency (RF) geo-analytics, established that Chinese fishing vessels routinely turned off their automatic identification system (AIS) tracking system hundreds of times to "go dark" in waters near Ecuador, contradicting declarations to the contrary of the Chinese ambassador to Ecuador made to a parliamentary committee in Quito.
The U.S. will be looking to effectively establish partnerships to address Chinese misdeeds. If not, "unilateral pressure by the United States would likely result in China enforcing similar sanctions, just as Beijing did by enacting a new law to counter U.S. restrictions on technology firms," according to the document.
“Other countries need to weigh in on these issues too," Tabitha Mallory, the CEO of the consulting firm China Ocean Institute and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, told Axios. "Anything that the U.S. does alone will be seen by the Chinese as simply part of the backdrop of rising power competition."
China's State Council categorized its fishing industry as a strategic industry in 2013, responding to calls from then-President Hu Jintao to transform China into a great maritime power. In response, the government provides fuel subsidies for the Chinese fishing industry to reach distant waters. These areas usually include around the coasts of developing nations in West Africa and South America.
"China’s leaders see distant-water fleets as a way to project presence around the world, so that when it comes time to set up regulatory frameworks, they will have a big say in how those frameworks are set up," Mallory said. The objective is to be "present all over the world’s oceans so that they can direct the outcomes of international agreements that cover maritime resources…including not just fishing, but seabed mining, the Arctic," and other issues around the globe, she said.