China fines fishing vessels over satellite tracking

Published on
June 22, 2015

China has slapped fines on fishing vessels for turning off satellite navigation systems part-funded by government. Such fines are rare in China. Though it doesn’t state why the vessels’ satellite systems were turned off, the Hainan branch of the Ocean & Fisheries Bureau in a statement said it has levied fines of CNY 5,000 (USD 805, EUR 710) on each of 233 fishing vessels operated by 39 companies for turning off their Beidou satellite systems for periods of up to six months in some cases.

The fines come at a time when China is attempting to crack down on vessels plundering protected coral reefs in the country’s territorial waters – coastal provinces like Zhejiang and Hainan have both issued documents warning of illegal fish and scavenging in reef areas.

The fines also come at a time when China is promising more stern enforcement of fishing bans to revive its own depleted fishing stocks in Chinese territorial waters. But there is also the issue of clashes involving Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese fishing vessels in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Hainan is an island province located in the South China Sea, near Vietnam.

China has in recent years encouraged fishing fleets to install the country’s Bei Dou (also spelt Beidou), a system which China has developed as an alternative to the U.S.-created GPS navigation system. Estimates from various Chinese government departments suggest over 60,000 fishing vessels now have Beidou on board. The government has subsidized up to 90 percent of the cost of installing the system on vessels and key fishing provinces like Fujian have required fishermen to have Beidou installed in order to be eligible for fuel subsidies which are a mainstay of fishermen’s livelihoods in China. Likewise, China has sought to market the Beidou system to the fishing fleets of other nations, including Thailand, which has sought to install a satellite system on its fleet.

While the Beidou (also known as BDS) has been instrumental in linking fishing trawlers to the Chinese coastguard in disputed waters like the South China Sea it appears to also be used as a means of enforcing Chinese fishing bans. But it’s not clear how the BDS satellites are being used to monitor Chinese vessels fishing international waters.

China’s use of the Beidou system on fishing vessels mirrors the efforts of territories like the EU which have required fishing vessels to install satellite systems on board. Several environmental groups have also sought to combat illegal fishing – estimated to cost the industry as much as USD 23.5 billion (EUR 20.7 billion) a year – using satellites to track the global movements of vessels.

Project Eyes on the Sea aims to build up several years of data from satellites to examine where potential illegal fishing vessels have previously fished and docked. A collaboration of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Satellite Applications Catapult, the initiative is also seeking to use satellite imagery to track suspect vessels. The Global Fishing Watch initiative meanwhile brings together the marine-focused Oceana campaign group and Google in creating a mapping system to combat illegal fishing on the high seas.

The companies fined in the Hainan case have been issued with “rectification notices” requiring them to submit for checks in September. The case also shows the complex web of bodies which enforce coastal regulations in China, leading to a frequent lack of enforcement of fishing regulations. An enlarged navy and coast guard patrols the country’s waters the Chinese government entrusts to the State Oceanic Administration with overall authority over maritime affairs. Yet the Ocean and Fisheries Bureau has responsibility over fishing, leading to duplication and confusion in the enforcement of fishing laws.

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