‘Devil vessels’: China’s fishing fleet faces claims of pillage and abuse

China’s distant-water fishing fleet faces new allegations of rapacious illegal overfishing, decimation of endangered species and abuse of south-east Asian fishing crews, following a cross-continent investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK-based non-governmental organization.

The EJF investigation, which includes graphic video footage captured by Indonesian fishermen, spotlights oversight failings by the Chinese government, the inadequacy of other countries’ fisheries regulators and the ignorance – or apathy – of consumers around the world.

In one video taken on the high seas of the south Atlantic last July, a seal was lured with squid, harpooned and then struck with a steel pipe until its skull cracked and blood gushed across its silvery coat.

EJF said the seal was just one of an unknown number of protected species slaughtered by the Chinese fleet that also included false killer whales, whale sharks, dolphins and turtles.

One Indonesian fisherman described the boat he toiled on as a “devil vessel”.

“We took everything. It did not matter whether the shark was big or small, even babies inside the shark’s belly, ”he told the investigators.

A separate investigation published last month by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a US think-tank, found that Chinese state-linked and private fishing companies – including some with western backers – had designed operations that evaded accountability and avoided exposure to external due diligence. . These included targeting species without established oversight bodies, visiting mostly Chinese ports and internalizing their supply chains.

Another study published in the journal Science Advances in March of illegal fishing activities – including human rights abuses and smuggling – found at least a third of all recorded offenses 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 insight into the true scale and breadth of activities of the Chinese fleet, which is the world’s biggest. EJF notes estimates ranging from 2,700 vessels in waters around the world to as many as 17,000. Despite the opacity, campaigners said, there was clear evidence the industry was threatening food security and economies in coastal states in Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond.

“This represents a grave environmental injustice, and is the latest in the long line of instances in which wealthier nations 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 comparatively negligible, ”EJF said.

According to EJF, which interviewed more than 100 fishing workers, dolphins were caught and fed to Chinese crew members while shark fins were stashed among cartons of instant noodles and secreted 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 expired food. They were often forced to work for days on end, only to then suffer unexplained salary deductions and wages stolen by corrupt Indonesian employment agents.

A major criticism of the Chinese government is the high level of state subsidies – estimated at $ 7.2bn annually in recent years – keeping afloat an industry that would otherwise be unprofitable.

China’s ministry of agriculture and rural affairs did not respond to questions.

Steve Trent, founder and chief executive of EJF, called for international pressure on Beijing and for policymakers and corporations to reform global fisheries governance and improve transparency of the global catch.

“This is not one geography or one jurisdiction, but many, primarily across the developing world. It’s not just one vessel, but many, quite often the majority, that are fishing illegally, that have clearly documented human rights abuses and that are disguising the true nature of their operations, ”Trent said.

According to the EJF report, problems are among their most acute in West Africa, where Chinese trawlers catch an estimated 2.35mn tonnes of fish, with a value in excess of $ 5bn, each year.

“That is huge chunks of money that can be ill afforded. The people that are affected, as is so often the case, are primarily the poor coastal communities, ”Trent said. “When the fish is gone, they do not have alternative livelihoods, there’s no other means to feed their families.”

Campaigners said global attention on environmental crises had waned as governments and consumers were more concerned with the war in Ukraine and the effects of the coronavirus crisis.

“Humanity has a shared self-interest in dealing with this yet seems unwilling or incapable of doing so,” Trent said.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding

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