China’s Distant Water Fishing Fleet
Vol 10 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2016
A succinct exposition of the real agenda of the Chinese distant water fishing fleet
Monday, December 5, 2016
Chinese fisheries production has witnessed impressive growth in the last few decades. The industry has evolved into a powerful industrial system consisting of construction of fishing vessels and associated machinery and systems, aquaculture and sea based fish production and processing, and fisheries management. Significantly, the sector is a major contributor to Chinese food security and social development.
However, the Chinese distant water fishing fleet has beckoned international concern. It has been accused of operating without valid licenses, catching fish in prohibited areas, and falsifying catch. There have also been instances of detention and destruction of Chinese vessels fishing illegally in waters of other countries. Many of the Chinese illegal fishing activities fall into the category of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. However, the fishing fleet has come to play an important role in Chinese national security strategy particularly for the PLA Navy and the Coast Guard.
China’s Fishing Fleet
According to the United Nations World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture report, in 2012 there were 4.72 million registered fishing vessels in the world and Asia constituted 3.23 million vessels accounting for 68 percent of the global fleet. In Asia, China was in the top position with an estimated 700,000 vessels which included 200,000 sea-going and 2,460 distant-water vessels i.e. those which sail for fishing in the high seas beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2013, China recorded 61.7 million tones fish production which corresponds to over 33 per cent of the world’s total fishery production.
Chinese IUU Fishing Activity
China has signed, but not ratified the 1995 Compliance Agreement (flag states to license high seas fishing vessels). It has also not signed the 2009 Port State Measures Agreement (Port states to inspect Fishing Vessels). It is well known that the registration of fishing vessels in China is handled by regional offices responsible for fisheries management such as the Port Supervisory Authority under the Bureau of Fisheries. The system is highly decentralised as the Harbour Master of the vessel’s home port is responsible for the registration of the fishing vessel. Hence, data on vessel registration and authorisation to fish is not readily available.
The European Parliament has estimated that between 2000 and 2011 Chinese fishermen extracted 4.6 million tons of fish annually, and majority of which came from African waters, followed by Asian waters, and smaller amounts from Central and South America, and Antarctica. In2013,the Greenpeace expressed concern over the Chinese fishing operations in west African waters (Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Sierra Leone)and noted that there were 114 cases of illegal fishing by the Chinese fishing companies. Further, four Chinese fishing companies were labelled as ‘rogue’ and China National Fisheries Corporation (CNFC) had under-declared the gross tonnage for 44 of the 59 vessels, avoided licensing fees, illegally operated in prohibited areas,and was accused of IUU operations. In December 2014, officials from 24 African countries expressed concerns over ‘destructive fishing practices’ adopted by the Chinese distant water fishing companies operating off the west coast of Africa.
Similarly, South Korea has taken stringent action against Chinese defaulters including fines and confiscation of catch. Two recent incidents involving the Chinese fishing vessels merit attention. In the first case, South Korean law enforcement agencies had to throw flash grenades at Chinese vessels fishing illegally and three Chinese fishermen died; and in the second case, a small South Korean coast guard ship sank after a Chinese fishing vessel rammed into it.
Indonesia has taken bold steps to curb IUU fishing, and since 2014, after President Joko Widodo assumed office, 151 vessels including a Chinese fishing vessel engaged in IUU operations in Indonesian waters have been scuttled.
The recent Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) award handed out in favour of Philippines against China over the South China Sea dispute, among many other issues, expressed concern over the adverse impact of the Chinese reclamation activities on the marine environment, and was alarmed that marine species such as sea turtles, coral, and giant clams had been harvested on a substantial scale particularly by the Chinese fishermen.
China actively explores opportunities for exploitation of marine living resources on the high seas. The Chinese distant water fishing vessels have expanded their operations across the world in West Africa, North Pacific, South Pacific, Japan Sea and the Atlantic. The Chinese government supports the distant water fleet through subsidy on operational costs including fuel which could be about 4 to 5 million yuan (US$600,000 to US$750,000), while smaller vessels might receive 1 million yuan. This is an attractive incentive for the Chinese fishermen to venture into distant waters to fish.
These subsidies must also be seen through the prism of other roles the distant water fishing feet can play for Chinese national security particularly for the naval strategy. Fishing fleet is often referred to as the “third arm” of the navy, the other being the merchant marine. Use of fishing vessels to support naval surveillance and intelligence gathering is not new and there is evidence of Soviet Union having deployed fishing vessels to conduct military intelligence activity during the Cold War. In recent times, the UK government accused Russia of deploying trawlers in international waters of the North Sea to intercept communications, and according to British authorities “While they look like fishing vessels they are packed with ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) and make no secret of their presence; all they want is to sit and test our reaction times and collate communications”.
As far as China is concerned, it is generally believed that it has integrated the fishing fleet into its naval strategy and some of the fishing vessels may be ‘equipped with advanced electronics, including communications systems and radar’ and support the PLA Navy by providing maritime intelligence.
The use of militia by China is noteworthy. Andrew Erickson at the U.S. Naval War College has nicknamed the maritime militiamen as ‘little blue men’. These vessels are primarily based on Hainan Island, south of mainland China and have been sighted in waters off Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia with whom China has territorial disputes. In August 2016, China deployed 230 fishing vessels in the East China Sea supported by 13 coast guard vessels. Interestingly, the militias have been involved in ‘buzzing’ US navy ships.
In the above context, the role of fishing vessels in China’s naval strategy can be best summed by a statement of the chief of the State-run Baosha Fishing Corporation in Hainan province, “If we put 5,000 Chinese fishing ships in the South China Sea, there will be 100,000 fishermen. . . And if we make all of them militiamen, give them weapons, we will have a military force stronger than all the combined forces of all the countries in the South China Sea”.
Chinese Fishing Vessels in Indian Ocean
The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have on regular basis intercepted fishing vessels engaged in IUU fishing in the Bay of Bengal. These boats have their origin in Myanmar and Thailand. In 2004, it was reported that a suspected Chinese ship ‘camouflaged as a fishing trawler’ was detected by the Indian Navy near the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Apparently, the vessel was deployed for monitoring naval and space activities in waters west of the Andaman Islands.
More recently, in July 2015, an Indian Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft sighted Chinese deep sea fishing vessels off the Kerala coast which later sought shelter at Diu and Madhvad Bay, off the Gujarat coast. The Chinese MRCC requested safe shelter for the fishing vessel because they were unable to sail to Iran due to bad sea conditions. At that time, these vessels were around 95 nautical miles from Mumbai.
Apparently, these vessels were intercepted by the Iranian border guard on suspicion of illegal fishing in Iran’s territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman. The vessels were taken to the Port of Chabahar for investigation.
China Pakistan Fishery Cooperation
Pakistan’s Deep Sea Fishing Policy 1995, amended in 2009, provides for foreign trawlers to fish in the EEZ, but obligates operators to also engage Pakistanis as crew members so that they could be trained in deep sea fishing. In 2009, Pakistan and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to promote cooperation in river fisheries and related technologies. In 2015, 14 trawlers belonging to Chinese fishing company were issued license to engage in deep sea fishing. The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) criticized their government over issuance of licenses to foreign deep-sea fishing trawlers.
The Chinese maritime strategy and the growth of the PLA Navy have been major issues for debate and discussions among the global strategic community. Also, Chinese initiatives such as the 21st century Maritime Silk Road and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative have attracted significant attention. These have provided a good understanding of the trajectory and growth of the Chinese maritime power.
Although the contemporary PLA Navy’s strategy has focused on deploying ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean, the Chinese deep sea fleet can be potentially deployed to support Chinese naval forays in the region. These can play a vital role of ‘maritime militia’ and can be deployed from fishing harbours in Pakistan and facilities in Djibouti.
It is fair to argue that there may be a tacit understanding between the Chinese and Pakistani government to provide access to Chinese fishing vessels to monitor Indian naval activity in the Arabian Sea. Similarly, Djibouti, where China is upgrading the port facilities and developing a military facility in the northern Obock region, fits well into the Chinese deep sea fishing activity for a number of reasons such as intelligence collection, support Chinese deep sea fishing feet in distress, and protect these vessels against pirates.