‘Devil’s ships’: Chinese fishing fleet faces charges of looting and abuse
China’s deep-sea fishing fleet faces new allegations of rapacious illegal overfishing, decimation of endangered species and abuse of Southeast Asian fishing crews, following an intercontinental investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in the United Kingdom.
The EJF investigation, which includes gripping video footage captured by Indonesian fishermen, highlights failings in Chinese government oversight, the inadequacy of other countries’ fisheries regulators, and ignorance – or apathy – from consumers around the world.
In video taken on the high seas in the South Atlantic last July, a seal was lured with a squid, harpooned and then beaten with a steel pipe until its skull cracked open and blood ran down its fur silver.
The EJF said the seal was just one of many protected species shot by the Chinese fleet, which also included false killer whales, whale sharks, dolphins and turtles.
An Indonesian fisherman described the boat he was working on as a “devil’s ship”.
“We took it all. It didn’t matter if the shark was big or small, even babies inside the shark’s belly,” he told investigators.
A separate investigation published last month by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, an American think tank, found that Chinese state-linked and private fishing companies – some with Western backers – had designed operations who evaded liability and avoided exposing themselves to external due diligence. . These included targeting species without established watchdogs, visiting mainly Chinese ports, and internalizing their supply chains.
Another study published in the journal Science Advances in March on illegal fishing activities – including human rights abuses and smuggling – found that at least a third of all recorded infringements from 2000 to 2020 were linked to 450 industrial vessels and 20 companies originating from China, the EU and tax haven jurisdictions.
Researchers have little information on the true scale and extent of the activities of China’s fleet, which is the largest in the world. The EJF notes estimates ranging from 2,700 vessels in waters around the world to 17,000. Despite the opacity, campaigners said, there was clear evidence the industry was threatening food security and states’ economies coasts of Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond.
“This represents a serious environmental injustice and is the latest in a long line of examples in which wealthier countries such as France, Japan, Korea, Spain and Russia have externalized the costs of their operations – degrading the natural resources of nations and communities whose contribution to global environmental problems is relatively negligible,” EJF said.
According to EJF, who interviewed more than 100 fishworkers, the dolphins were caught and fed to Chinese crew members while the shark fins were hidden among cartons of instant noodles and stashed in hidden freezers.
Indonesian fishermen also described frequent beatings at the hands of Chinese captains and senior crew members. Workers lived in squalor and were fed stale food. They were often forced to work for entire days, only to face unexplained payroll deductions and stolen wages by corrupt Indonesian employment agents.
A major criticism of the Chinese government is the high level of state subsidies – estimated at $7.2 billion a year in recent years – keeping an otherwise unprofitable industry afloat.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not respond to questions.
Steve Trent, founder and chief executive of the EJF, called for international pressure on Beijing and on policymakers and corporations to reform global fisheries governance and improve transparency of global catches.
“It’s not one geography or one jurisdiction, but many, mostly in the developing world. It is not just one vessel, but many vessels, often the majority, which are fishing illegally, which have clearly documented human rights abuses and which are disguising the true nature of their operations,” said said Trent.
According to the EJF report, the problems are among the most acute in West Africa, where Chinese trawlers catch an estimated 2.35 million tonnes of fish, worth more than $5 billion, each year. .
“These are huge sums of money that can be poorly paid. Those affected, as is so often the case, are mainly poor coastal communities,” said Trent. “When the fish is gone, they have no other means of subsistence, there is no other way to feed their families.”
Campaigners said global attention to environmental crises had diminished as governments and consumers became more concerned about the war in Ukraine and the effects of the coronavirus crisis.
“Humanity has a common interest in dealing with this, but seems unwilling or unable to do so,” Trent said.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding