The illegal Chinese Distant Water Fishing Fleet (DWF) presence in Asia

China’s Distant-water fishing fleets, which operates on the high seas and also in the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries, is the biggest fleet in the world with an estimated 2,700 ships. The distant-water fishing sector is infamous for being secretive and unregulated as many countries fail to publish their fishing data. This is not surprising given the fact that it is often found guilty of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices, targeting prohibited species, causing irreversible environmental damage as well as intelligence gathering, espionage and space tracking.

(Map depicting the intensity of Chinese fishing in IOR from 2021-2023)

The presence of illegal Chinese DWF vessels are felt all over the world, but it is particularly worse in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Countries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), South China Sea region as well as East Asian countries and Russia are all victims of IUU fishing and violation of EEZ by the Chinese vessels. Despite the fact that the IOR has presence of many countries in the region, the Chinese DWF fleets have increasingly become a hazard, especially in the Northern Indian Ocean region (NIOR). The NIOR is an important region as most of the world’s maritime traffic passes through it, hence the presence of dubious Chinese DWFs raises concern.
The NIOR, which comprises of countries like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran and Oman, is seeing a surge in unregistered Chinese fishing vessels. According to the Indian Navy, they monitored more than 392 Chinese IUU fishing incidences in the Indian Ocean in 2021 compared to 379 in 2020.
It is also reported that spy ships disguised as fishing boats are being used by the Chinese to gather intelligence data and spy on assets of other countries, including India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands. While the other countries have seen a significant increase in Chinese activities
in their EEZ, in Pakistan on the other hand, the presence of China’s DWF is minimal and on a downward slope. Could it be a benefit of being a trading partner and ally to China?
The island nations in the NIOR like Sri Lanka and Maldives have reported the presence of Chinese DWF vessels such as squid jiggers, trawlers and long liners that fish in the area before moving to other target areas like Oman in the Arabian Sea. The Chinese vessels in Oman, according to our report, often misuse the Iranian flag as a disguise and are engaged in fishing at industrial scale. This activity has increased exponentially since 2016. Similar issue persists in Iran where the trawlers are taking close to 46,000 tons of commercial fish, as stated in a report of Iranian parliament. This is leading to depletion in numbers of protected species and dolphins which are killed by commercial dragnets. Reflagging themselves under Iran’s flags, these trawlers fish for seahorses, who are then dried and powdered to be used in Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM).

(Chinese vessel presence change around Indonesia from Dec 2016 to Jan 2023)

In the eastern IOR, nations like Indonesia and Malaysia are sea-based economies which are highly dependent on fishing. As Chinese DWF with huge capacities stay longer in the area, the local fishermen are finding it tough to earn their daily bread and butter. Indonesian laborers, who work on some of these fishing vessels, suffer racial abuse and exploitation at the hands of their Chinese managers. It has been reported that between 2019 and 2020, 30 Indonesian fishermen died onboard Chinese long-haul fishing boats because of substandard food, dangerous drinking water and excessive working hours.
Due to the close proximity with China, East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea are the most vulnerable and the most impacted by Chinese vessels. South Korea has also reported Chinese-flagged ships fishing in their EEZ. The western region neighboring China is the worst affected with over 300K hours of illegal fishing done by the Chinese vessels. The governments of South Korea and China have held several talks to smooth out this issue since the beginning of the last decade, which have failed to bear any fruit.

(Chinese vessel presence change around South Korea from Jan 2022 to Jan 2023)

coast guard ships and fishing vessels have been making attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the Senkaku islands. Chinese ships mounted with artillery have approached Japanese ships in the Japanese territory. The Japanese Ministry of foreign Affairs has released a statement saying,” The Senkaku Islands are indisputably an inherent part of the territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based upon international law, and are, in fact, effectively under the Japanese control… It is a violation of international law for the China Coast Guard ships to act making their assertions in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, and such acts will not be tolerated.” Quite surprisingly, Chinese trawlers were also spotted in the EEZ of Russia. The vessels have done over a million hours of dark surfing in the Russian far-east.
While many countries have strongly opposed the fishing activities by Chinese vessels, some have taken strict measures. Indonesia, for example, have sunk many Chinese ships in the last four years which were dangerously close to their land boundary. The Quad, comprising India, Australia, Japan and the US have announced a major regional effort under the ambit of Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPDMA) aimed to provide a more accurate maritime pictures of activities in the region.
As the Chinese distant-water fishing activities are growing rapidly and unsustainably all around the world, it is depleting global fish stocks and disrupting marine ecosystem. Moreover, it is increasingly becoming a source of diplomatic and environmental tensions with other nations. Hence, it has become imperative to introduce laws, policies and strict measures to keep it in check.

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