Chinese fishing fleets a growing presence in Latin American waters

Published on
December 4, 2017

China's Distant Water Fishing (DWF) vessels—which receive more than USD 400 million (EUR 340 million in national subsidies annually—are increasingly encroaching on Caribbean and Latin American territorial waters to fish illegally.

The Center for International Maritime Security's website outlined the issue in a recent article.

“In recent years, there have been various reports about Chinese fishing fleets operating in international waters and also crossing into a country’s maritime territory to carry out unauthorized fishing activities.”

James G. Stavridis, a former U.S. supreme allied commander at NATO, echoed those concerns in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

“Chinese vessels are increasingly fishing near [U.S.] waters and are seeking to expand their footprint in the Caribbean, Stavridis wrote in the piece, which he co-authored.

In August of this year, Ecuador captured a Chinese vessel fishing illegally in its waters and put the crew members on trial. The captured vessel held 300 tons of fish, including endangered species.

Last year, another Chinese vessel reacted violently to efforts by Argentinian authorities to detain it when the fleet it belonged to was found fishing illegally in the South American country's waters. The Argentinian authorities subsequently sunk the vessel. Peru has likewise reported illegal fishing by Chinese DWF fleets in its waters.

Stavridis said these intrusions were laying the groundwork for the next resource war – over fish. 

“In order to keep its people fed and employed, the Chinese government provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year in subsidies to its distant-water fishing fleet. And in the South China Sea, it is common for its ships to receive Chinese Coast Guard escorts when illegally entering other countries’ fishing waters. As such, the Chinese government is directly enabling and militarizing the worldwide robbing of ocean resources,” Stavridis said.

In response to these and other illegal activities in their waters, Latin American countries have scaled up their martime security surveillance and increased the naval power at their disposal to protect their maritime boundaries, according to articles by maritime security researcher Alejandro Sanchez Nieto, carried on the Center for International Maritime Security website.

In addition, he stated that “in recent months numerous nations have signed agreements with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to unite against [illegal fishing]. In fact, eight Latin American and Caribbean states (Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Uruguay) have signed the legally binding Port State Measures Agreement.”

However, Nieto also pointed out that Latin American and Caribbean countries would be unlikely to take a frontal approach to combating illegal fishing by Chinese vessels. 

“China is a global economic force, and most nations, including developing nations such as those in Latin America, would not want to take Beijing head-on,” Nieto wrote. “This is arguably the reason why the incidents mentioned in this article have not somehow evolved into some type of trade or diplomatic crisis.”

A recent report by Greenpeace shows that the size of China's DWF vessels grew from just over 1,800 in 2012 to nearly 2,500 in 2014.

Reporting from the Caribbean

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