Milestone reached as China assigns first on-board observers to distant-water fishing vessel

Five Chinese government-appointed observers have departed a Chinese port onboard a reefer, in what is potentially a major development for China’s governance of its distant-water fleet.

The five observers, appointed by China's Agriculture Ministry, are the first such observers to travel on Chinese fishing vessels, according to the ministry. They are now travelling on the transport ship to the Pacific and Indian oceans to ensure that “no illegal catches” are taken, according to a statement from the ministry.

A ceremony marking the observers’ departure in Rongcheng, Shandong Province, was co-hosted by the Agriculture Ministry’s Fisheries Management Office, along with the Distant Water Fishing Association. Also represented at the ceremony was the Fujian office of the Ocean and Fisheries Bureau and the Dalian Ocean University. Neither the vessel’s name nor its owner were disclosed.

"This is the first time that my country has dispatched observers for reprinting of offshore fisheries on the high seas, which demonstrates my country’s determination to actively participate in international ocean governance and severely crack down on illegal fishing activities and the responsibility of a major country," China Ocean Fisheries Association Chairman Zhang Xianliang said in a speech at the ceremony"As a responsible fishery country, my country actively participates in global ocean governance, implements independent fishing moratoriums in some areas of the high seas, and promotes scientific conservation and sustainable use of high-seas resources, which has been widely praised and recognized by the international community. The international community pays great attention to high-seas reporting activities, and dispatching observers to monitor high seas reporting is an important means to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishery activities."

Data collected by the observers will be analyzed by staff of three Agriculture Ministry entities: the Ocean Fisheries Training Center, China Ocean Fisheries Data Center, and the Ocean Fisheries International Compliance Research Center.

The observers were assigned as the result of an Agriculture Ministry document published in May 2020 that prioritized “strengthening measures” to ensure that Chinese vessels are compliant with rules set by regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs).  The document also requires distant-water fishing vessel owners to compile records of ship movements as well as transshipments of their catches. Those records will then be compiled by the China Distant Water Fishing Industry Association (also known as the China Ocean Fisheries Association), a government-funded entity.

Rongcheng is the same port from which 10 squid-jigging vessels owned by the Pingtan Marine Co. set sail last September after being licensed by the Agriculture Ministry to operate in the Southwest Atlantic Ocean, as well as in the Indian Ocean, the North Pacific, and the Southeast Pacific Ocean.

While the ministry has stated that fishing companies will pay the costs of observers on board their vessels, it’s not clear if observers will also be boarding Chinese-owned vessels flagged to other nations. The U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute has claimed around 1,000 Chinese DWF vessels are flagged to countries other than China, the majority of which – 518 in total – are registered in African nations. The ODI also claims that China undercounts its distant-water fleet and that its true size is not the 2,500 vessels, as stated in official documents, but rather 16,966 vessels.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has consistently called on flag states to improve monitoring and control of transshipments – or to prohibit the process – as it’s blamed for enabling illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and allowing illicit operators to relabel catches.

Tabitha Grace Mallory, affiliate professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, and an expert in China’s distant-water fleet, said she sees the observers' maiden trip as significant.

“This is the first time the Chinese have put observers on board to monitor transshipment, which is important because some Chinese fishing vessels remain at sea for months, if not years, and transfer their catch to reefers to land in ports,” Mallory told SeafoodSource. “China launched a small observer program for distant-water fisheries in 2001 in response to RFMO requirements, and has expanded it and strengthened it a couple of times since then through government policies issued in 2011 and 2016. China has increasingly reflagged reefers to other states too, so it will be interesting to see if the rules cover reefers flagged to other countries as well, in addition to any reflagged fishing vessels.”

Photo courtesy of Shandong Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs


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