6 Chinese distant-water vessels boarded by joint US-Vanuatu patrol, accused of fishing law violations

U.S. Coast Guard vessel Cutter Harriet Lane seen in the distance of a fishing vessel in the South Pacific Ocean
U.S. Coast Guard vessel Cutter Harriet Lane seen in the distance of a fishing vessel in the South Pacific Ocean | Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard/USCG Senior Chief Petty Officer Charly Tautfest
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A joint U.S.-Vanuatu patrol performed onboard inspections of six Chinese fishing vessels in recent weeks, reporting each for violations of the Pacific Island nation’s fishing laws.

Vanuatu Marine Police Spokesperson Bianca Simeon told Reuters the vessels had not properly recorded their catch in logbooks.

Yakar Silas, the principal monitoring, control, and surveillance officer for Vanuatu Fisheries, said penalty notices would be sent to Chinese companies that owned the vessels and their local agents in Vanuatu.

After years of failing to police its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Vanuatu resumed patrols through a joint cooperation agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard in February 2024. The cooperative campaign is a departure from Vanuatu’s recent engagement with U.S. maritime authorities under a previous president in 2023, when a U.S. Coast Guard vessel patrol for illegal fishing was refused access to Vanuatu's port.

In response to the most recent patrols, China Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a 6 March press conference she wasn’t familiar with the situation but that China is a “responsible country” that closely monitors the China-flagged fleet operating in other EEZs. Mao also said China is “cooperating with the country in question on aquaculture production for mutual benefit.”

Chinese state-owned company CNFC Overseas Fisheries, which has a joint venture with Vanuatu's government called Sino-Van, is the operator of one of the inspected vessels: the Zhong Shui 708. CNFC formed a joint venture with Vanuatu's government 10 years ago with the goal of creating a local tuna cannery, but that facility was never opened.

Sino-Van Director Zhang Junwei told Reuters the CNFC vessel in question did not belong to the company's Vanuatu branch and said Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai is supportive of the Sino-Van project. China Ambassador to Vanuatu Li Minggang visited Sino-Van on 27 February, the day after CNFC's boat was boarded, according to Reuters.

The Chinese embassy said the Chinese boats had fishing permits from the Vanuatu government and were fishing legally.

"Chinese companies obey Vanuatu laws," an embassy spokesperson told Reuters.

China has increasingly looked to the South Pacificspecifically Vanuatu, as an engine of growth for its fisheries sectors, and increasing Chinese activity in the Pacific has drawn the attention of the Australian and U.S. governments.

Hainan Xiangtai Fishery Company announced an agreement in December 2023 to build an integrated fish-farming facility in Vanuatu, and in 2018, Zhuhai Donggang Xing Fishery Company sent 10 vessels to fish the nation’s waters and has promised to build a processing and logistics base there.

However, Chinese vessels have run into previous trouble in Vanuatu, with two tuna-fishing vessels detained by Vanuatu after being accused of engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. Charges against the vessels and their crew were dismissed in August 2022.

Additional reporting by Mark Godfrey

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