An aerial photo shows two Chinese fisheries patrol vessels in waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea off Okinawa prefecture, on July 11, 2012, as a Japan Coast Guard vessel watches. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Osamau Kanazawa

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in disruptions to global food-distribution networks, and in the aftermath, it will be more important than ever to address the issue of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Globally, seafood consumption has continued to climb in recent years as the unprecedented growth of a middle class around the world has resulted in increased demand.

At least 3 billion people rely on farmed or wild-caught seafood as their primary source of protein, while more than 4.3 billion people get at least 15% of their animal protein intake from fish and other seafood.

IUU fishing also contributes to other problems such as piracy and terrorism across East and West Africa. In Asia, it contributes to a growing number of maritime border disputes, many of which are rarely discussed.

The Yakushima incident

James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral and NATO commander, warned in a 2017 article that China was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize vessels involved in IUU fishing.

In early 2019 the US government warned that China’s illegal fishing practices could start a conflict in the region. Some recent examples suggest just how close that prospect is.

In 2020, the Japanese destroyer Shimakaze sustained a 1-meter hole in its hull after colliding with a Chinese fishing vessel 650 kilometers west of the Japanese island of Yakushima. Two fishermen aboard the Chinese vessel were reportedly injured.

That violent confrontation came weeks after a similar alarming incident involving the Taiwanese Coast Guard and Chinese speedboats in Pacific waters.

IUU incidents can often lead to far more than ramming and the exchanges of insults on radio channels. In 2019, the Argentine coast guard fired on and sank Chinese vessels illegally fishing inside Argentina’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Of course, China isn’t the only country aggressively using its fishermen as a proxy for its military power – call it “fishboat diplomacy.” Vietnam and other countries have also been accused of using their fishing fleets as “militia.”

In 2019, when Indonesia launched a major operation to crack down on IUU fishing in its territorial waters, it destroyed 51 foreign vessels, only two of which were Chinese-flagged. Yet there is no denying that a large number of vessels involved in IUU fishing hail from China, which has also been the world’s largest exporter of seafood since 2002.

China’s rise to dominance in the seafood industry was rapid. The communist country built the world’s largest deep-water fishing fleet with some 3,000 vessels in less than two decades.

Yet that number fails to show the extent of Chinese influence on the global fishing industry. Indeed, a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation revealed that 90% of Ghana’s industrial trawler fleet is linked to Chinese owners though often locally registered under Ghanaian companies.

Chinese authorities have reluctantly admitted to having a problem. Several new regulations have been announced, including a blacklist for Chinese company executives and boat captains who engage in IUU fishing. Furthermore, under current Chinese policy, no vessel is supposed to fish within 3 nautical miles of the EEZ of any country.

Yet its enforcement of these measures can often vary, depending on the jurisdiction. “In the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea and most of the East China Sea (in waters they have clear jurisdiction over), they are taking IUU fishing very seriously because IUU fishing has a directly felt impact on domestic sustainability and food security,” said Tabitha Grace Mallory, an expert on Chinese fishing practices.

She added, “China’s annual fishing moratorium only extends to 12 degrees north latitude, so any fishing below that (which is where the disputed Spratly Islands are) is pretty much a free-for-all. China provides large subsidies to fishing fleets that operate in that area.”

Of course, the problem of subsidies applies to more actors than just China. The European Union has quietly reintroduced subsidies to help grow its fishing fleet. Unless measures are taken to end such harmful subsidies, the stomachs of those who live above the water will soon feel the impact as well.

“The long-distance water fishing fleet is responsible for the majority of IUU fishing incidents linked to Chinese-flagged fishing vessels, and considering that the operation of the foreign fishing fleet is only possible due to state subsidies, China needs to cut all of its fishing subsidies. For that matter, the European Union needs to do the same with its long-distance fleet,” said Peter Hammarstedt of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The UN’s response

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for countries to abandon fishing subsidies in the interest of food security. The goals were approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and are meant to be achieved by 2030.

The 14th SDG, “Life below Water,” calls on all nations to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing; eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.”

China is a signatory to these goals, as are the EU and a number of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that also contribute to the problem of IUU fishing.

If more isn’t done soon to address this problem both in Asia and around the world, there will be a lot more empty food shelves and many more empty stomachs. More emphasis needs to be placed on naming and shaming vessels, companies and crews involved in such practices.

Furthermore, through satellite images and other efforts, more attention should be paid to such vessels, particularly the so-called motherships that allow certain IUU-involved vessels to stay at sea for long periods.

Perhaps most important, more effort should be put into enhancing the enforcement and naval capabilities of states involved where significant IUU fishing is present, from Africa to the South Pacific.

This article appeared previously at Comment Central, and is republished with the permission of the author.

Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Eurasia, Africa and the Middle East.