Overseas Development Institute’s Miren Gutierrez: “Chinese vessels are everywhere”

A trove of data published earlier this year suggested the scale of China’s distant-water fleet is much larger than official figures from China suggest. Data mining specialist Miren Gutierrez, a research associate at the London, United Kingdom-based Overseas Development Institute and lead author of the report, titled “China’s Distant-Water Fishing Fleet – Scale, Impact and Governance,” talked to SeafoodSource about how the data was compiled, and where China’s vast fleet operates.

SeafoodSource: Your research indicates that China has more than 15,000 distant-water vessels. To clarify, is that 15,000 active vessels or 15,000 vessels with the capacity to be active in distant waters?  

Gutierrez: We identified more than 16,000 Chinese vessels capable of distant-water fishing. These are all vessels with the capacity to be active in distant waters, yes. 

Let me clarify a few things. There are two types of data we used in the report: "static" data – a sort of census of ships— and location, or "dynamic," data (or satellite data from the automatic identification system, AIS).  We started with a definition of what distant-water fishing is. Distant-water ships are those vessels that can operate outside their national waters or exclusive economic zones. That is, these vessels must be able to sustain fishing operations far away from their ports of reference. We then performed 10 rounds of extractions to mine the data on every Chinese vessel in our global database of fishing ships. We extracted data on Chinese vessels that were registered with a unique International Maritime Organization number, with a regional fisheries management organization, and so on. 

For extraction three, we found there were many thousands of Chinese vessels with a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, which we had no way of knowing whether they could be considered distant-water fishing vessels. So, we did a specific analysis of their movements based on AIS data to remove those which never ventured outside Chinese waters in 2017 and 2018. We found 12,490 vessels had been outside Chinese waters at some point or another.

The sum of all the subgroups, minus some that were labeled as decommissioned, inoperative, or sank, is 16,966 unique Chinese vessels with the capacity for distant-water fishing. 

SeafoodSource: How many are active at any time, and why do you think there is such a discrepancy between your figure and the 2,600-3,000 figure usually put out by Chinese government related bodies? 

Gutierrez: This is a tricky question because what does "active" mean? We can say that at least 12,490 vessels were at one point or another present outside the Chinese EEZ. What were they doing? We don't know. 

We did another analysis of AIS data of all the fleet to identify full-blown fishing operations. We requested the AIS data for all the 16,966 unique vessels for 2017 and 2018 to train our algorithms to identify the different fishing maneuvers. And found out that at least 1,878 Chinese vessels had been involved in full-scale fishing operations.  

I have no explanation for the discrepancy. What we do know, again, is that the 16,966 vessels are unique – that is, there is no overlap – and have the capacity to fish in distant-waters; [That] at least 12,490 of them had been outside the Chinese EEZ at some point or another in 2017 or 2018; [and] also at least 1,878 of them had been involved in 5,241 fishing maneuvers during 2017 and 2018. 

SeafoodSource: What did the process of acquiring this data for your report entail? 

Gutierrez: We were fortunate to partner with Vulcan, which owns the global database called Krakken, which is the basis of the report. The key was to identify which vessels we needed to observe. Once we had the complete list of China's distant-water fishing vessels, we were able to acquire the "dynamic" data from a satellite data provider. 

SeafoodSource: What has the reaction to your report been like?  

Gutierrez: We are thrilled that the report attracted so much attention and is being employed as context to understand incidents, such as the presence of a considerable Chinese fleet off the Galapagos Islands. The report and coverage of it have formed part of the growing international pressure on China to regulate its fishing fleet better. As a result of this international pressure, China has issued new sustainability rules for its fishing fleet

The ultimate goal is not to blame and shame China, but to help the Chinese government make the right decisions and contribute to change towards sustainability. That is why our report does not stop at just analysis but includes a set of recommendations.  

SeafoodSource: Did you get any reaction to the report from China, either from government or the fishery industry?  

Gutierrez: We know from inside sources that the report has been read thoroughly, but we have not received any reaction from China so far. Our reports are all peer-reviewed by industry experts and researchers, so we knew in advance that the fishery industry would also take note. 

SeafoodSource: There have been high-profile statements from Argentina and Ecuador this year to protect their fisheries from a perceived “invasion” of large numbers of Chinese trawlers. Do you get a sense that coastal nations are waking up to this issue?

Gutierrez: I do think that coastal communities are very much aware. The problem is that their needs and concerns might not reach the general population and are not necessarily in the political agenda. As these tensions become widespread and news media organizations start to pay more attention, national publics and governments will become more responsive. The question is whether this will happen fast enough to save species, ecosystems, and the communities that depend on them.

One example is Ghana. It has regulated industrial fishing. Ghana's Fisheries Act of 2002 restrains fishing licenses to vessels flying a Ghanaian flag. That is, Ghanaian companies must own licenses. But Chinese firms use Ghanaian front firms to dodge these regulations. And even if vessels get banned, they come back again. A Chinese-owned fishing trawler was recently re-licensed to fish in Ghana, despite being caught for illegal fishing and failing to pay its fine. 

SeafoodSource: China says it cooperates with regional fishery management organizations. How effective are regional fishery bodies in policing IUU fishing?    

Gutierrez: That is not exactly true. As a flag state, China does not have a strong record of engaging with the international community and complying with RFMO responsibilities. Half of China's distant-water fishing vessels are believed to operate in areas governed by RFMOs. China indeed signed a key United Nations fish stocks agreement in 1996, but it never ratified it. In fact, China has joined only seven RFMOs, while, in comparison, the EU participates in 17 such organizations.

And then, the question is whether fishing vessels comply with RFMOs' rules. An example is what has happened in Ecuador. Apparently, half of the vessels off Galapagos Islands were intermittently switching off their satellite communications, in breach of the rules of the RFMO.  

The truth is small nations find it difficult to confront Chinese interests, and the global governance of distant-water fishing needs more effective regional and global capacity. RFMOs, national governments, multilateral agencies, and international development donors have a role in monitoring and prosecuting vessels and companies that are suspected of illegal or irregular fishing, too. 

SeafoodSource: Where are most Chinese vessels operating? 

Gutierrez: This is not easy to determine. These vessels have the capacity to sustain operations very far away from their ports of reference. They often resort to high-seas transshipment or the transfer of fish and cargo from a fishing vessel onto a reefer, which can process it. Therefore, many of them keep on fishing for very long periods, as we observed in a previous report on transshipments

What we found is that most of the full-blown fishing maneuvers we identified took place in the Northwest Pacific, where the Chinese EEZ is located. However, the most intense operations were squid fisheries in the Southeast Pacific – including the coastal waters of Peru, Chile, and Ecuador – and Southwest Atlantic, including the coastal waters of Argentina. This is in line with the tensions and incidents that we have seen in the past few years in those regions. 

On the other hand, of the 927 vessels flagged in countries other than China, we found 518 Chinese vessels registered in African nations, most of them West African, especially, Ghana, Mauritania, and Cote d'Ivoire. Looking at the fishing operations, we also could confirm that the Eastern Central Atlantic was among the fleet's favorite areas, with a lot of squid-jigging and trawling operations. In addition, the Western Central Pacific, including coastal waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, was the second-most frequented region, with a lot of squid-jigging, trawling, and long-lining.

So, what I am saying is that Chinese vessels are everywhere.

SeafoodSource: If you look at the accounts published by groups like CNFC, it appears that distant-water fishing is not a very profitable business. Is this true? And if so, why are there so many new distant-water vessels being launched in China? 

Gutierrez: CNFC might say this is not a profitable business, but according to our analysis, it is one of the biggest companies in the fleet. Of the 6,122 vessels for which we have information on owners and operators, CNFC directly operated or owned 257 vessels and is the head of subsidiaries such as China National Fisheries Yantai Marine Fisheries Corp. [with another 66 vessels]. I am not aware of an avalanche of new distant-water fishing vessels being launched this year. But this has been the pattern driving the out-of-control growth of this fleet in the past decades. 

SeafoodSource: Do you think China's enthusiasm for distant-water fishing is connected to the relative lack of critical information or debate in the public domain in China about IUU and distant-water fishing impacts on coastal states in Africa and other places? 

Gutierrez: I am sure several factors are driving this enthusiasm, including the love of seafood, fishing as a global business, and a policy of state subsidies and incentives. However, there is a proven connection between political inaction, the lack of social awareness, and inadequate or incomplete news coverage of similar issues – such as the climate crisis, for example. Besides, China has an authoritarian system controlling media, information flows, and freedoms; what is in the public domain is constrained by this system. So, there definitely is a deficit of critical information and free debate about this and other issues in the Chinese society, which does not help. 

Photo courtesy of Miren Gutierrez/Overseas Development Institute


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