A fishing trawler at Tai O, Hong Kong. Photo: iStock.
A fishing trawler at Tai O, Hong Kong. Photo: iStock.

Few would think of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a body that oversees dry issues like tariffs and quotas, as something that would be involved in combating transnational crime. But given the Geneva-based body’s jurisdiction over fisheries subsidies rules, it stands to have a major impact on the increasingly critical issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – which has been growing largely due to the Chinese government’s deployment of financial incentives to prop up its fishermen. Hopes are riding high that next month’s WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires will finally achieve a deal to eliminate damaging fisheries subsidies the world over – but is it enough?

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), global fishing subsidies, fingered as the main drivers of overfishing, amount to as much as $35 billion in 2017, a figure that has been growing year-on-year. In China alone, subsidies tripled between 2011 and 2015 to reach nearly $22 billion – a figure that does not include the tens of millions in tax breaks provided to coastal Chinese cities where local fishing companies are based. In one Greenpeace study, it was revealed that subsidies for some firms amount to a significant proportion of total income; for the state-owned CNFC Overseas Fisheries, a $12 million diesel subsidy received in 2016 made all the difference between turning a profit and making a loss.

China’s insistence on buttressing its fishing industry caused further controversy several weeks ago, with Beijing offering to selectively ban subsidies in lieu of structurally curbing its vast fleet of distant-water boats. China’s proposal was peppered with caveats, exempting developing countries and areas subject to territorial disputes from protection; national governments and fishing organizations – instead of third-party experts – would be given control over defining IUU activities.

Despite an annual moratorium on fishing, Chinese vessels have set their sights on greener pastures

As Beijing’s armada of fishing vessels continue to dominate the waters of Asia and West Africa to the detriment of locals, such proposals have failed to impress the international community. The growth of China’s middle class over the past decade has contributed to an almost exponential increase in demand for luxury goods, including high-quality seafood. As a result of growth in offshore drilling, trawling and other unsustainable marine activities, China’s own fishing stock has been almost irreversibly depleted. Despite an annual moratorium on fishing, Chinese vessels have set their sights on greener pastures.

Weak law enforcement

According to some experts, West Africa has come to provide the vast majority of fish caught by China’s fleet, drawn in part by the continent’s weak law enforcement. Most of the incoming megatrawlers are so big they catch as many fish in one week as Senegalese hand-hewn canoes manage in a year; one new study has put the cost to West African economies as high as $2 billion per year. Tensions reached a head earlier this year with the detention of seven Chinese ships by West African authorities after inspectors from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau found them to be in violation of regulations.

Closer to home, territorial disputes in the South China Sea regularly play out in its fishing grounds; amid overlapping claims between China, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, regional governments have hardly rolled out the welcome mat for Chinese trawlers. Not one for subtlety, Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti has embarked on a campaign of explosive demolitions of seized Chinese vessels since taking office in 2014, while Vietnamese coast guard units seized a Chinese fuel ship in its waters.

Especially worrying for China’s neighbors has been the government’s build-up of artificial islands in the South China Sea in an effort to expand its territorial claims, militarize the waterway, and gain control over new fishing grounds and other marine resources. This strategy is concerning not only from a security standpoint but also because of its environmental impact on local coral reefs, which have been destroyed in the process of building the islands. Until a South China Sea code of conduct is finalized and agreed upon, Beijing’s antagonistic actions and the inevitable fallout are likely to continue well into 2018 and beyond.

As a result, although IUU fishing has usually been discussed in terms of its economic or environmental impact, rising tensions over fishing allocations mean that illegal fishing is now, finally, beginning to be recognized as a security issue. A new report issued this month by the Washington-based think-tank CSIS lays out the ways in which IUU fishing amounts to a “nontraditional security threat.” The report constituted an unprecedented partnership between the think-tank and two marine protection organizations that offered key support: National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, a project focused on exploring and protecting the ocean’s wildest corners, and the Philip Stephenson Foundation, an NGO providing funding for marine exploration, protection and education focused on the US and Eastern Caribbean coastal regions.

According to the CSIS report, criminal networks have exploited largely unregulated high seas, using fishing vessels to boost profits, through a two-step “trans-shipping” system that allow ships to remain out of ports for months at a time – often against the will of crewmembers. Illegal hauls are then stuffed with narcotics, resulting in profits from both the catch and drug smuggling.

In response, governments are beginning to tackle local instances of IUU fishing. For instance, eight East African nations bordering the Indian Ocean have recently banded together to create a data sharing initiative to help stop illegal fishing in the region. Other governments are going so far as to take military measures, with the Vietnam and Japanese coast guards recently holding their first drill centered on stopping illegal fishing in the South China Sea.

Even so, given the scale of the problem – and the fact that IUU fishing is most pervasive in the high seas – domestic, and even regional, responses simply won’t be enough to preserve global fishing stocks and security. A large-scale, multinational response will be needed. One can only hope that December’s meeting in Argentina will provide the right forum for members of the international community to come together, close the net on Beijing, and try to convince the government to mend its ways before the environmental – or military – impact goes too far. As Philip Stephenson put it recently, “If we do not act decisively now, we stand to see more depletion and destruction that would ultimately have catastrophic impacts on humanity.”

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Jon Connars is an American investment risk analyst and researcher currently shuttling between Singapore and Bangkok with expertise in the ASEAN region. He has been featured in The Hill, The Diplomat and Asia Times.

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