A picture taken on December 21, 2019, from a South Korean helicopter shows 12 Chinese fishing boats banded together with ropes to thwart an attempt by South Korean coast guard ships to stop their alleged illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea. Photo: AFP / Park Young-Chul

TOKYO – White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien announced on October 23 that the US Coast Guard (USCG) will deploy its new Fast Response Cutters in the western Pacific to interdict Chinese fishing fleets’ alleged predatory activities and ensure freedom of navigation.

The White House statement said that: “The People’s Republic of China’s illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the exclusive economic zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific, threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability…

“To that end, the USCG is strategically homeporting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters … in the western Pacific … in Fiscal Year 2021, the USCG plans to evaluate the feasibility of basing Fast Response Cutters in American Samoa. If the survey is favorable, the United States could further expand its presence in the South Pacific.”

The USCG describes its Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters as “a key component of the Coast Guard’s offshore fleet that is capable of deploying independently to conduct missions that include port, waterways and coastal security; fishery patrols; search and rescue; and national defense.”

Built in Louisiana, Fast Response Cutters are 154-foot patrol boats with a maximum speed of 28 knots and a range of 2,500 nautical miles. They are armed with a stabilized 25-mm machine gun (autocannon) with a 3,000-meter effective range mounted on the deck and four crew-served .50-caliber machine guns.

The USS Coast Guard cutter Nantucket (C) and two other US Coast Guard cutters. Photo: AFP/Yuri Cortrez

The USCG will need a wide net to catch predatory Chinese fishermen. China has the largest fishing industry in the world, with an annual harvest – excluding aquaculture – 2.7-times greater than that of Indonesia, 3.6-times greater than that of the US and 5.4-times greater than that of Japan, according to World Bank data from 2018.

The industry has grown explosively in line with the Chinese economy. 

In June 2020, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a think tank based in London, issued a report estimating China’s deep-water fishing (DWF) fleet at nearly 17,000 vessels – five to eight times greater than previously thought and by a wide margin the largest in the world.

The report notes that: “Chinese DWF is not solely responsible for the global fisheries crisis: other countries are also responsible for overfishing. The international community has also failed to ensure oversight of international fishing operations …

“However, the sheer size and global presence of its DWF fleet, as revealed in this report, means China is the most significant actor.”

China ranked first in The Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Index issued in January 2019. Having fished out the seas adjacent to China, Chinese fishermen now roam worldwide, aggravating what was already a serious problem. 

The IUU Fishing Index was created by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management, a consultancy based in the UK, and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a non-governmental organization headquartered in Geneva, with help from other organizations.

The development of the index was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

The American Coast Guard initiative follows Japan’s provision of patrol boats, aircraft and radar systems to Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. 

An aerial view of thousands of fishing boats sheltering near Shenjiamen Harbor due to Typhoon Maysak in Zhoushan city in east China’s Zhejiang province, on September 1, 2020. Photo: AFP

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force also conducts its own patrols of the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca, and has held joint exercises with the Philippine Navy.

Australia provides patrol boats and other assistance to protect the fisheries of Pacific island states.

A military response to illegal fishing is not new and China’s fishing fleets have been used for strategic as well as economic purposes. 

Since 2007, Indonesia has been confiscating Chinese, Vietnamese and other foreign fishing boats caught poaching within its waters and blowing them up with dynamite.

In March 2016, the Argentine Coast guard fired on and sank one of three Chinese unauthorized fishing vessels operating within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South Atlantic. Before sinking, the vessel tried to ram an Argentine ship. Two other vessels escaped.

In 2010, a Chinese trawler operating near the disputed Senkaku Islands near Taiwan slammed into a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat, causing an international incident. 

For several years now, Chinese fishing boats have swarmed the Senkaku Islands when the Chinese government wanted to highlight the issue.

Earlier this month, this low-level conflict expanded into the Japan Sea when Chinese fishing vessels swarmed squid and crab fishing grounds within Japan’s EEZ off Ishikawa Prefecture.

Chinese fishing boats set off to fish near the disputed Diaoyu Islands, also known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, from Shipu fishing port in Xiangshan county, east China’s Zhejiang province, on September 16, 2012. Photo: AFP

Whether or not this was timed to coincide with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visits to Vietnam and Indonesia, where he promoted the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order, is not clear. Neither is what his new government plans to do about it.

Chinese fishing fleets also intrude on the eastern Pacific. 

Earlier this year, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels were reported to be operating just outside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. In the absence of a physical boundary, they were able to scoop up the food supply of both the rare marine species of the islands and local Ecuadorian fishermen.

This has been going on since at least 2016, when the Ecuadorian navy found a Chinese vessel fishing within the reserve.

Chinese fishermen are also working with Mexican drug cartels to fish for totoaba, a critically endangered species of fish native to the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) between Baja California and the Mexican mainland, according to reports. It has been illegal to catch totoaba since 1975, but that means nothing to the cartels.

The swim bladder of the totoaba is used in Chinese traditional medicine. The Mexican cartels call it the cocaine of the sea.” Fishermen under their control drop thousands of gill nets, aiming for totoaba but also trapping and killing other fish, turtles and the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale. 

The vaquita, which lives only in the Sea of Cortez, is also on the verge of extinction. The story is told in the film Sea of Shadows, directed by Richard Ladkani, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio also helped make saving the vaquita a priority of the Mexican government.

The Center for International Maritime Security, a non-profit think tank incorporated in Maryland, reports that Mexico, Peru and Chile have all stepped up patrols to control Chinese and other illegal fishing along their Pacific coasts. 

It is ironic that US President Donald Trump – no friend of the environment in the US – has become instrumental in stopping China’s assault on the oceans. A greater US Coast Guard presence along the west coast of Latin America might also be welcome. 

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research in Tokyo.