Illegal Chinese fishing:- A multibillion dollar global fishing industry backed by the Chinese government is driving a surge in Chinese vessels engaged in illegal activities [RFA]
Illegal Chinese fishing:- A multibillion dollar global fishing industry backed by the Chinese government is driving a surge in Chinese vessels engaged in illegal activities [RFA]

Illegal Chinese fishing off East Africa hurts local communities: report

A multibillion dollar global fishing industry backed by the Chinese government is driving a surge in Chinese vessels engaged in illegal activities and exploiting fishing grounds off East Africa, spoiling them for local people, according to a London-based environmental group.

Illegal Chinese fishing:- A multibillion dollar global fishing industry backed by the Chinese government is driving a surge in Chinese vessels engaged in illegal activities and exploiting fishing grounds off East Africa, spoiling them for local people, according to a London-based environmental group.

"Before the Chinese fishing boats came here, we could expect a good catch when we cast our nets, even if we only cast the nets three times," one Mozambican fisher told the U.K.-based Environmental Justice Foundation. "Now we have to stay out at sea for a whole day to catch enough fish."

"This is heartbreaking, because these fish are not only for us, but also for our children,” he said. “They have destroyed our future livelihoods."

In October 2023, a State Council white paper said China would focus on "win-win cooperation, safe, stable, green and sustainable" distant-water fishing operations.

Yet China’s vast fishing fleets, which cast their nets as far away as Latin America, West Africa, and even Antarctica, have been adding to the strain on worldwide fishing stocks, according to organizations monitoring the issue in recent years.

Government-backed distance trawler fleets scoop up massive amounts of fish in a short space of time, depleting stocks, interrupting breeding cycles and polluting the coastlines of Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar with huge dumps of discarded fish judged not to be valuable enough to process, local witnesses told the Foundation.

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, with around two-thirds of the population living on the coast and dependent on the sea for their food, income and economic activity.

One fisherman near the port of Beira said Chinese fishing boats had damaged his nets, leaving him scrambling to find enough money to repair them.

"They catch a lot of small fish but throw them away and only pick the fish they want," the Beira fisherman said. "Whole beaches are covered with dead fish." 

"The way Chinese fishing boats operate leaves us with nothing," the report quoted him as saying.

Shark fin soup

But the report – the first to detail Chinese fishing operations in the southwest Indian Ocean – goes further to say that many ships in the fleet exhibit “illegal, unsustainable and abusive behaviours towards marine ecosystems and crew alike.”

The report, "Tide of Injustice: Exploitation and illegal fishing on Chinese vessels in the Southwest Indian Ocean,” found 86 instances of illegal fishing and human rights violations in the area between 2017 and 2023, half of which were linked to Chinese fishing vessels.

“Illegal fishing and human rights abuses were found to be commonplace on Chinese vessels in the SWIO [southwest Indian Ocean], including routine shark finning, the deliberate capture and/or injury of vulnerable marine megafauna, and crews suffering from physical violence, abusive working and living conditions, intimidation and threats,” said the report.

The finning of sharks – cutting the fin off and tossing the animal back into the ocean – is illegal in many countries. The fin is coveted for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy served at festive occasions.

Some 80% of interviewees who had worked on Chinese longline tuna boats said they had witnessed or taken part in shark-finning.

"Some days we would catch as many as 20 sharks," a former Indonesian employee on a Chinese fishing vessel in the southern Indian Ocean told the foundation's film crew in April. "We would just cut their fins off and throw the rest of the shark back."

The man was among dozens of former crew on Chinese fishing vessels and Mozambican fishers interviewed for the report.

"All of the fishers interviewed by the foundation who had worked on China’s tuna fleet in the southwest Indian Ocean ... experienced or witnessed some form of human rights abuses and/or illegal fishing," the group said in the June 6 report.

China currently ranks bottom of 152 countries and territories in an illegal fishing index known as the IUU Risk Index.

Physical and verbal abuse

Violence is also rife aboard Chinese vessels, the foundation's East Asia Manager Chiu Shao-Chi told RFA Mandarin in a recent interview. 

Chiu said 54% of interviewees witnessed or experienced beatings and assault, including with knives and metal implements, kickings and other forms of abuse.

Around 70% of interviewees reported being verbally abused or intimidated, sometimes alongside the physical violence, by their superiors.

And around 93% said they had been underpaid, or had deductions from their wages for no good reason amounting to hundreds and even thousands of U.S. dollars.

Some were forced to take out loans in order to get the job, and forced to pay back the cost of food, transport and healthcare to their employers, as well as make repayments on the loan.

"The conditions on these boats are pretty inhumane," Chiu said. "Many fishermen told us that they were basically enslaved."

But the remote nature of fisheries, combined with an industry-wide lack of transparency, continues to make identifying and prosecuting illegal fishing and its human rights abuses challenging, the report found, particularly when vessels are operating far from their home port.

State-backed

Chinese seafood companies, which are often state-owned or subsidized and backed by local ruling Communist Party officials, have been fishing in the southwest Indian Ocean for several years already.

In November 2018, Yu Yi Industry Co. Ltd celebrated its first haul of 359 metric tons of fish and crustaceans from waters near Mozambique at the instigation of Shenzhen Party Secretary Zhou Jiangtou as part of China's Belt and Road global supply chain and infrastructure program, the industry publication Seafood Source and Chinese media reported at the time.

But in the waters off East Africa, its distant fishing operations have left many local communities worse off than before.

"The southwest Indian Ocean is an area with very rich marine biodiversity," Chiu said. "The excellent local conditions don't just support the local marine ecosystem, but also the livelihoods of coastal residents from one generation to the next."

The arrival of state-backed Chinese trawler fleets has changed all that, she said.

"Several fishing enterprises subsidized by the Chinese government are pursuing huge profits off East Africa," she said. "These companies may pay lip-service to sustainability and human rights in their annual reports, but they clearly don't actually protect them."

‘Collage of speculation’

Chinese state media and officials have started hitting back at such criticisms, often with allegations of their own.

An opinion piece published by the Global Times in April said Urbina's research contained "unsubstantiated smears," and was "a mere collage of speculation."

In September 2023, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning responded to allegations of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by Chinese vessels from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by blaming "a small number" of individual skippers.

"China exercises the right to develop and use the fisheries resources on the high seas in accordance with relevant international law," Mao said. 

Beijing has implemented voluntary fishing moratoriums in some marine areas, and has worked with other countries to crack down on illegal fishing, she said.

Mao said the United States had exceeded catch limits for tuna in the western and central Pacific Ocean in recent years, and that American vessels have also been implicated in the fishing of whale sharks, turtles and in harming sharks.

Worsening poverty and food insecurity

In 2022, China's longline tuna fleet transhipped more than 12,000 metric tons of albacore, bigeye and yellowfin tuna to refrigerated vessels. But these transport ships could also have taken illegal shark fins without anyone knowing, because they are largely unregulated.

"Over the past 25 years, overfishing by industrial fleets and widespread illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing have caused a 30% decline in subsistence fisheries production in Mozambique," ​​Chiu told RFA, citing local government data. 

“Mozambique loses an estimated US$70 million in revenue each year due to rampant illegal fishing, which has a significant impact on the national economy and the livelihoods of coastal residents," she said.

The depletion of fish stocks off East Africa has "exacerbated food insecurity and poverty on land," according to an article by Selina Robinson, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Investigation at the University of Winchester.

"Some former fishermen, in collaboration with militias and unemployed youth, have turned to piracy as a means of survival," Robinson wrote in an article in The Conversation in May 2024.

Earlier this month, the United Nations called for better protection of marine ecosystems to guard against overfishing and pollution. RFA/SP

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