Pingtan Marine, Chinese government, NGOs respond to US sanctions

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning.

A Chinese government spokesperson has assailed U.S. sanctions against two Chinese distant-water fishing firms as evidence of “double standards.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning, responding on 9 December to a question from TASS, the Russian news service, rejected allegations of human rights abuses onboard Chinese fishing vessels and China said punitive actions taken by the U.S. against Pingtan Marine and Dalian Ocean Fishing represented interference in the country’s internal affairs.

“As a principle, that China strongly opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of human rights. The U.S. is in no position to impose unwarranted sanctions on other countries or act as a ‘world policeman.’ China will act resolutely to safeguard its lawful rights and interests,” Ning said. “As for the issue of illegal fishing, let me say that China is a responsible fishing country. We have always worked with other members of the international community to crack down on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and have done a lot in effectively combating illegal fishing. In contrast, the U.S. seiners are operated on the high seas for far more days than the limit set by the relevant fisheries organizations, and they have been doing this for many years. Pointing fingers at others while turning a blind eye to its own violations is blatant double standards.”

On 16 December, Pingtan Marine issued its own response to the sanctions, saying it has “endeavored to ensure that its fishing methods are in compliance with international standards and the laws and regulations of the operating waters.”

“The company's human resource management is in compliance with the labor law and the labor contract law of the People’s Republic of China, and the company strives to comply with the laws of all other jurisdictions that have approved the company's fishing operations, and other relevant international laws,” it said. “The company is thoroughly assessing the possible impact of this incident on the company's business and prospects. The company intends to take appropriate measures to protect the interests of the company and its shareholders, and is currently reviewing its options to seek removal from the Specially Designated Nationals List.”

Pingtan Marine and Dalian Ocean Fishing were sanctioned on 9 December by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which alleged the companies regularly engaged in illegal fishing and labor abuse. The sanctions lock both countries out of the U.S. market and also target the owners of both companies, Dalian Ocean Fishing Chairman and General Manager Li Zhenyu and Pingtan Marine Founder, Chairman, and CEO Xinrong Zhuo.

Fishery industry representatives in Europe welcomed the sanctions. Daniel Voces, the CEO of Euroepan fishing association Europêche said the sanctions, along with laws proposed in the E.U. that would prohibit the sale of products made with forced labor, are a means of ensuring a level playing field for European vessels.

“Europêche welcomes these proposals, since the European consumer must be able to buy only products obtained in an ethical and sustainable way,” Voces told SeafoodSource. “In this context, and in order to drive changes in countries with little or no respect for sustainability or workers’ rights, it is fundamental to adopt trade measures to protect our markets from seafood products manufactured in violation of human and workers' rights. That is why we welcome the strong stand taken by the U.S. government against human rights abuses in China.”

A similar note of welcome was issued by Julio Morón, director general of the Spain-based Organización de Productores Asociados de Grandes Atuneros Congeladores (OPAGAC), which represents Spanish companies operating a fleet of tuna purse-seiners, said his members “hope that these sanctions will be effective.”

“Even if they are later reduced through the courts, at least the deterrent effect can be achieved with their announcement, forcing other operators to address labor abuses in their fleets,” he told SeafoodSource.

Government action, such as the U.S. sanctions, “make things move… as seems to be happening in Taiwan,” Morón said.

The E.U. Parliament and several E.U. agencies, including the E.U. Long-Distance Fisheries Advisory Council and Market Advisory Council, recently published studies critical of the Chinese distant-water fleet.

“[The report] analyzes the scope and impact of the global fishing footprint of the Chinese distant-water fleet and the lack of transparency of its activities both at sea and on land, including unmonitored transshipments, the use of foreign flags by its vessels and a lack of traceability of its fishing products. It also highlights numerous documented cases of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing with links to labour and human rights abuses,” the councils said in a joint statement. “While acknowledging that progress has been made in the cooperation between the E.U. and China in fighting IUU fishing and in the country’s capacity to address this phenomenon, the LDAC and the MAC are concerned that the pace at which this progress being made is not commensurate with the rapid expansion of the Chinese distant-water fleet and the global impact of its vast, unsustainable, and opaque activities. The LDAC and the MAC also note that the progress claimed by China does not seem to have fully translated into a sufficient improvement of the transparency or accountability of the operations of its DWF nor improved traceability along the supply chain. The LDAC and the MAC also remain particularly concerned with widespread human rights abuses associated with this fleet.”

The LDAC and MAC said given importance of the E.U. as a market for Chinese seafood, “it is essential for the E.U. to step up its engagement with China.”

“This should encourage the urgent adoption of improved environmental, social, and labor sustainability standards,” the councils said. “China should also be urged to adopt transparency measures similar to those in the E.U. in order to drive positive changes along the supply chain.  They highlight the importance to promote a level playing field for all fishing products entering the E.U. market, both in terms of documentation and control.”

Europêche’s Voces said the international focus on labor issues in the distant-water fishing industry as a result of the U.S. sanctions represented an opportunity to increase international pressure on China and the U.S. to sign into law and enforce the International Labor Organisation Work in Fishing Convention (C188), which was formally ratified by the United Nations in 2018. The convention establishes minimum requirements for work on board, standards for accommodation and food, occupational safety standards and health protection, medical care, and social security. It also requires the owners or captains of commercial fishing vessels to provide a written work agreement to all employees on board.

“C188 is key to deterring forced labor and abuses in fisheries and set the conditions for a level playing field for work in the sector at global level,” Voces said. “Unlike the European Union, which has transposed these social provisions into E.U. legislation, China and the U.S. have not yet ratified this convention. The slow pace of ratification by states of the ILO C188 is reducing the effectiveness of actions to ensure decent work and living conditions for fishers worldwide.”

Allison Gill, the forced labor program director for global labor rights campaign group Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), called on the global seafood industry and retailers around the world to take action to protect fishing industry workers.

“This means not only remediation of the harms and an end to exploitative working conditions, but, crucially, concrete steps to protect and enforce workers’ rights to freedom of association and bargaining,” Gill said.

The GLJ-ILRF recently proposed seafood companies and retailers share the cost of installing Wi-Fi internet on distant-water fishing vessels as a means of monitoring transparency and working conditions.

 “Wi-Fi on vessels is a concrete measure that can protect freedom of association and protect against abuse of vulnerability,” Gill said. “We know that abuses in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing aren’t limited to the sanctioned fleets and we urge accountability for all perpetrators of forced labor.”

Ernesto Fernandez Monge, a senior officer of conservation support at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the U.S. sanctions highlight the importance of implementing the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies agreement on IUU fishing and forced labor, agreed to in June 2022.

“This makes the entry into force of the agreement even more important, because the U.S. and other countries will have another tool in the toolbox to fight IUU fishing and forced labor activities, and WTO members will have a framework to address concerns related to any IUU determinations and sanctions imposed,” Fernandez Monge told SeafoodSource.

Photo courtesy of Foreign Ministry of China


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