As the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia contend with an infuriated France over a maritime defense deal that left the latter country snubbed, China — the main reason the defense deal was needed — is carrying out massive, questionably legal fishing efforts in some of the world’s least-overseen waters.
The thousands-strong fleet of Chinese fishing vessels, worldwide, which is heavily subsidized by Beijing, has been long accused by environmentalists and national maritime enforcement agencies of engaging in illegal, ecologically damaging fishing practices.
Reporters from The Associated Press and Univision joined the vigilante patrol cutter Ocean Warrior on an 18-day voyage over the summer to observe the fishing boats up close after a large fleet of Chinese ships was caught fishing off the Galapagos Islands in the summer of 2020.
Beijing had promised to rein in its fleets fishing around the islands, which, despite their exotic sound, are only about 600 miles from the coast of South America — about the distance from St. Louis to New Orleans. They’re a province of the government of Ecuador, on South America’s Pacific coast.
The islands are a UNESCO heritage site and home to several critically endangered species among its ecologically diverse wildlife population.
Yet here the Chinese fishing boats were by the hundreds, a year later, according to the AP report.
“China’s deployment to this remote expanse is no accident. Decades of overfishing have pushed its overseas fleet, the world’s largest, ever farther from home. Officially capped at 3,000 vessels, the fleet might actually consist of thousands more,” the AP explained.
“Keeping such a sizable flotilla at sea, sometimes for years at a time, is at once a technical feat made possible through billions in state subsidies and a source of national pride akin to what the U.S. space program was for generations of Americans.”
When the AP’s journalist observed a fleet of 300 boats up close during the voyage with the Ocean Warrior, the patrol ship was surrounded by an “atoll of blazing lights” overpowering the night sky at 3 a.m.
“’Welcome to the party!’ says third officer Filippo Marini as the spectacle floods the ship’s bridge and interrupts his overnight watch,” the news agency’s eye-opening report explained.
“It’s the conservationists’ first glimpse of the world’s largest fishing fleet: an armada of nearly 300 Chinese vessels that have sailed halfway across the globe to lure the elusive Humboldt squid from the Pacific Ocean’s inky depths.”
As Marini hurriedly wrote down the electronic IDs for the 37 vessels he saw on the ship’s radar before they would disappear, the AP reported, he immediately observed some major red flags.
Two of the boats had gone “dark,” meaning required tracking devices that would give their position had been switched off, while others were broadcasting two different radio numbers.
Both of these were strong indicators of what the Ocean Warrior’s crew suspected all along when they organized the trip to observe the ships up close — the Chinese fleet was engaging in illegal fishing practices that Beijing has done little to curb.
“Fishing takes place almost exclusively at night when each ship turns on hundreds of lights as powerful as anything at a stadium to attract swarms of the fast-flying squid,” the AP explained. “The concentration of lights is so intense it can be seen from space on satellite images that show the massive fleet shining as brightly as major cities hundreds of miles away on land.”
The fleet is capable of staying afloat for years at a time thanks to the assistance of giant refrigerated vessels, called “reefers,” which can haul over 15,000 cubic meters of fish to port as the fishing boats keep pulling in the catch, month after month. Meanwhile, tankers, carrying cheap fuel heavily subsidized by Beijing, refuel the ships.
It’s a technologically advanced mass fishing operation that is environmentally devastating to the regions it targets for aquatic plunder — and shows little regard for international laws or treaties.
“Beijing is exporting its overfishing problem to South America,” the Ocean Warrior’s Captain Peter Hammarstedt, the director of campaigns for the Dutch ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd, told the AP.
The fleet observed by AP and Univision reporters began its journey in the Austral summer on the other side of South America, fishing some of the least-regulated oceans off the coast of Argentina before heading to the largely unpopulated waters off the western coast of the continent.
Hammarstedt organized the campaign to more closely observe the Chinese fishing fleet, Operation Distant Water, after seeing how illegal Chinese fishing ships ravaged impoverished West African fishing villages, the AP reported.
“China is chiefly responsible for the plunder of shark and tuna in Asia,” he told the AP. “With that track record, are we really supposed to believe they will manage this new fishery responsibly?”
The Chinese government says it has zero tolerance for illegal fishing practices, touting a recent temporary moratorium on high seas squid fishing to indicate its commitment.
Yet the appearance of the huge fleets off the South American coast gives little hope that China has any intention of putting an end to well-funded fishing expeditions, nor of ensuring that its vessels are following international law.
Of the 30 vessels observed by the AP, the outlet explained, “24 had a history of labor abuse accusations, past convictions for illegal fishing or showed signs of possibly violating maritime law. Collectively, these issues underscore how the open ocean around the Americas — where the U.S. has long dominated and China is jockeying for influence — have become a magnet for the seafood industry’s worst offenders.”
“Specifically, 16 ships either sailed with their mandatory safety transponders turned off, broadcast multiple electronic IDs or transmitted information that didn’t match its listed name or location — discrepancies that are often associated with illegal fishing, although the AP saw no evidence that they were engaged in illicit activity,” the AP report stated.
Six ships, meanwhile, were owned by companies that were accused of using forced labor, nine have been accused of illegal fishing in different waters, and a tanker that serviced the fleet, the Ocean Ruby, is operated by the affiliate of a company that was suspected of violating United Nations sanctions to sell fuel to North Korea, AP reported.
“Yet another, the Fu Yuan Yu 7880, is operated by an affiliate of a Nasdaq-traded company, Pingtan Marine Enterprise, whose Chinese executives had their U.S. visas cancelled for alleged links to human trafficking,” the AP also noted.
“The more you learn about these vessels and equipment, the harder it is to sleep at night,” Susi Pudjiastuti, a former fishing minister to Indonesia who gained the admiration of conservationists for destroying hundreds of illegal foreign fishing ships, told AP.
“These South Americans should wake up as early as possible,” he warned.
China’s malfeasance is certainly not limited to simply puffing up its feathers at anyone in the global community who suggests Beijing doesn’t have a right to occupy Taiwan and oppress Hong Kong. And if the Belt and Road Initiative, partnership with Afghanistan’s Taliban, and extensive corporate and military espionage were not already a wakeup call, then this most certainly should be.
China’s quest for global dominance is multi-faceted and its aggressive campaigns to dominate trade and acquire resources the world over have been wildly successful for years, the recognition of which was a major part of former President Donald Trump’s political platform and subsequent foreign policy.
Beijing has no interest in playing by anyone else’s rules but its own, no matter how many agreements it signs in hollow, disingenuous signals to the global community.
The Chinese Communist Party aims to dominate the globe, in every way, by any means necessary, and absolutely no one can stop its ruthless quest without recognizing this first.
Western leaders would do well to stop expecting to be able to hold Beijing to its empty promises and start treating it like it is: The most advanced enemy to freedom, sovereignty, and humanity the world has ever seen.