China inks closer fishery ties with Kiribati, including deal involving controversy-plagued Ocean Family

Fishers aboard an Ocean Family vessel pose with a ray they caught as bycatch
Fishers aboard an Ocean Family vessel pose with a ray they caught as bycatch | Photo courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation
6 Min

China has signed a memorandum of understanding for a “Blue Partnership” with the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati.

Kiribati Fisheries and Marine Resources Development Minister Ribanatak Siwo signed the agreement after meeting with Sun Shuxian, director of China’s State Oceanic Administration and vice minister of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, during a visit to Beijing on 1 July. According to Chinese media coverage of the visit, Siwo said he welcomed Chinese technical support and capacity training in mapping and researching Kiribati’s marine areas and resources.

Kiribati has been the recipient of fisheries, infrastructure, and medical aid from China after the island switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. The island and other Pacific Island states, whose votes in international assemblies like the United Nations matter to Beijing, have been the recipients of Chinese largesse through the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA).

Aquaculture trainers were dispatched to Kiribati in 2021 from the Chinese province of Hubei – a key region for freshwater aquaculture production. Also in 2021, Kiribati’s then Fisheries Minister Ribanataake Tiwau was one of the speakers at the first China-Pacific Island Countries Forum on Fisheries Cooperation and Development. The theme of the forum was “Opening up a New Prospect for Fisheries Cooperation between China and Pacific Island Countries.”

China’s increased attention to Kiribati has alarmed the U.S., which in 2021 promised to open an embassy on the island, which lies 1,340 miles south of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A. However, China's effort to strike a regional security and trade deal in the Pacific region was rejected by the Pacific Island Forum in 2022. In response, Kiribati pulled out of the Pacific Island Forum and moved to open the Phoenix Islands Protected Area to fishing, receiving USD 66 million (EUR 61 million) from China shortly thereafter.

Kiribati boasts one of the world’s largest exclusive economic zones at 3.5 million square kilometers and one of the world’s most productive tuna-fishing grounds.

Those grounds have been targeted by Chinese fishing firms, including Zhejiang Family Ocean, which in 2021 signed a cooperation agreement with Kiribati’s government valued at USD 100 million (EUR 91 million). Since then, the company appears to be deepening its economic ties to Kiribati. In April 2024, Ocean Family General Manager Shen Zhijun participated in a meeting at China’s state-run Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute that was chaired by Riibeta Abeta, Kiribati’s ambassador to China. At the meeting, a memorandum of understanding on fisheries cooperation was signed between China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which oversees the country’s fisheries, and its Kiribati counterpart concerning fishery resource assessments, sustainable aquaculture, high-value seafood processing, and fishing-related technology training.

Ocean Family also inked other deals, including one with the Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute and a marine aquaculture science and technology innovation strategic cooperation agreement with Kiribati Christmas Island Fisheries Co.

Ocean Family recently lost several prominent customers following reports of allegations of ...

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