The dire effects of illegal fishing

Illegal fishing poses a severe threat to the economies, environment and security of Pacific Rim nations, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and a new report in the journal Science Advances.

The report — titled Illuminating Dark Fishing Fleets in North Korea — highlights the risks of illegal fishing in the Pacific Rim. The report was authored by the Washington-based scientific research center Global Fishing Watch and a group of international research organizations. Global Fishing Watch says “dark fleets” are vessels that do not publicly broadcast their location, a common indicator they are engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

People sitting among filled baskets with boats in background (© Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
Traders sit among baskets of squids for sale in Da Nang, Vietnam. A dispute between China and Vietnam over fishing rights in the South China Sea is harming Vietnamese fishermen. (© Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

Global Fishing Watch used satellite technologies and machine learning to track fishing by Chinese vessels in North Korean waters — fishing likely in violation of United Nations sanctions.

The report also notes that from 2017 to 2018, some 1,600 Chinese vessels caught almost as much Pacific flying squid as Japan and South Korea combined — more than 160,000 metric tons, worth over $440 million.

The United States warns that the People’s Republic of China subsidizes much of the country’s fishing activity. That fishing routinely violates the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of coastal nations.

In Washington, Admiral Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, briefed reporters October 20 on U.S. efforts to uphold international maritime governance in the Pacific. He also talked about strengthening U.S. partnerships with nations whose economies and natural resources are threatened by the illegal fishing practices of predatory countries across the globe.

Both the U.S. Coast Guard and Global Fishing Watch warn that IUU fishing causes billions of dollars in losses worldwide, reduces fish stocks, and jeopardizes marine ecosystems, food security and the livelihoods of legitimate fishing communities that depend on seafood as a primary source of income and dietary protein.

Addressing lawless behavior

Schultz warned that IUU fishing is “symptomatic of a larger security vulnerability,” particularly for coastal states “who have limited capacity to patrol their maritime domain or apprehend and prosecute criminal actors.” IUU fishing often happens in concert with other illicit behaviors, including the atrocities of human trafficking and forced labor, as well as the smuggling of illegal substances. However, Schultz said, collective action can “eradicate this threat to our collective prosperity.”

While citing the ecological threat to the Galápagos Islands from PRC fishing vessels, Schultz noted that fishing by such vessels off of South America or elsewhere isn’t always illegal. However, “when it moves into a host nation’s seas without permission, then we start to have some problems.”

Small ship in ocean (USCG)
Coast Guard cutters conduct law-enforcement boardings to counter illegal fishing in the Pacific Ocean. (USCG)

Tabitha Mallory, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in PRC foreign and environmental policy, said Beijing has taken some corrective measures, but not enough.

“The biggest developments have been [the PRC] decision in 2017 to cap the fleet at 3,000 — though they have not capped total [fishing] capacity — and the revision of their distant-water fishing regulations earlier this year to include language on IUU fishing for the first time.”

Mallory said these moves have been in response to international pressure following incidents such as the high-profile sinking of a PRC fishing vessel by the Argentine Coast Guard in 2016.

Mallory said fishing subsidies from the PRC to their fishing fleet were an estimated 27 percent of the world’s total fishing subsidies in 2018. “Fishing subsidies make the industry profitable when it wouldn’t be otherwise, and that leads to overfishing and IUU fishing.”

“It’s important that everyone recognize that sustainable fishing is in the long-term interests of everyone on the planet, including China’s,” Mallory said.