New Report Documents Human Rights Abuses in China’s Global Fishing Practices

The Environmental Justice Foundation, an environmental NGO based in London, released a new report, titled “The Ever-Widening Net: Mapping the Scale, Nature and Corporate Structures of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing by the Chinese Distant-Water Fleet.” Using data from the Chinese government, public records of illegal fishing, and interviews with over a hundred crew members aboard dozens of Chinese fishing vessels, the report provides a comprehensive analysis of environmental, animal and human rights abuses by China’s Distant-Water Fleet (DWF). With China under the spotlight due to the U.N. Biodiversity Conference (COP15) that it will host in Kunming later this month, the report challenges China’s image as a responsible environmental actor and economic partner in the international community. Below are some of the EJF report’s key findings on the scope of China’s DWF and its environmental and human rights abuses:

The Chinese fleet has become a substantial presence in multiple developing countries. Over a third of the authorised CDWF operations in 2019 and 2020 covered 29 specific [exclusive economic zones] in Africa, Asia and South America – the fisheries of many of the regions being characterised by limited [monitoring, control, and surveillance] capacity and coastal regions heavily dependent on fishing for both nutritional and livelihood needs.

The CDWF is frequently associated with illegal fishing. According to the data analysed, fishing without a licence or authorisation is the most common recorded illegal fishing incident, constituting 42% of the total. Using prohibited gear and the capture of prohibited species are the next highest ranking offences, at 11.5% and 10.3% respectively. The size of the fleet, coupled with the high instances of suspected [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fishing, threatens continued socio-economic stability and inflicts ecological harm globally. 

[…] Whilst data is limited, human rights abuses seem to be common amongst the CDWF, an issue that blights distant-water fishing more generally. Interviews conducted by EJF with 116 Indonesian crewmembers who have worked on vessels belonging to the CDWF indicate that 99% have experienced or witnessed wages being deducted or withheld, 97% have experienced some form of debt bondage/confiscation of guarantee money and documents, 89% have worked excessive overtime, 85% reported abusive working and living conditions, 70% experienced intimidation and threats, and 58% have seen or experienced physical violence. These findings have been echoed in EJF interviews with Ghanaian crew on board CDWF vessels in Ghanaian waters. All 10 crew interviewed had experienced or witnessed physical abuse by Chinese captains, and similarly all 10 reported poor living conditions on the vessels they operated on, including being forced to eat low nutrition food and consume poor quality water – often resulting in sickness and diarrhoea. [Source]

The massive size of China’s DWF highlights the importance of examining the environmental and human rights issues that result from its fishing practices. A 2020 report by the Overseas Development Institute found that China’s DWF has 16,966 vessels, significantly larger than previous estimates of approximately 3,000. By contrast, the EU’s DWF fleet was 289 vessels in 2014, and the U.S. had 225 large DWF vessels in 2015—both are orders of magnitude smaller than China’s DWF. Moreover, Chinese vessels account for nearly 40 percent of the top-ten DWF activities in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which is more than any other country. Among China’s DWF vessels, almost 1,000 are registered to countries other than China and 518 are registered in African nations, allowing these vessels to go unreported in official figures and evade scrutiny for harmful activity. 

According to the EFJ, China’s DWF has grown and operated in an unsustainable manner, imperiling maritime ecosystems and the local communities that depend on them; many such local communities are already in precarious situations. The UN stated in 2018 that 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are “fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted,” primarily due to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Chinese vessels are responsible for over half of all global industrial fishing offenses, and while seventy nations have joined the agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, China is not one of them. Among those most impacted by China’s IUU fishing are coastal states, particularly in West Africa, whose economies and food security are heavily dependent on fishing. Drawing from the EFJ report, Kate Bartlett from VOA explained how IUU fishing by China’s DWF harms local African communities:

CDWF bottom-trawlers catch an estimated 2.35 million tons of fish a year in West Africa, accounting for 50% of China’s total distant water catch and worth some $5 billion.

China’s gain is often to the detriment of countries like Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, EJF says, with the highest number of illegal fishing incidents reported in the West African region between 2015 and 2019.

“Illegal fishing and overcapacity in the Ghanaian trawl sector is having catastrophic impacts on coastal communities across the country,” EJF’s Chief Operating Officer Max Schmid told VOA by phone, with some 80-90 percent of local fishers in Ghana reporting a decline in income over the last five years.

Women — who are usually responsible for processing and selling the local catch — are often hit hardest by the loss of income, turning to transactional sex, according to EJF, a phenomenon locally dubbed “fish for sex.”

[…] It’s also becoming more and more common for the Chinese vessels to catch small pelagic fish, which are the main population caught by small-scale fishers, and then sell them back to communities for profit, the organization found. [Source]

The Chinese government has played a notable role in supporting China’s DWF. In 2019, the Chinese government provided about $1.8 billion in harmful subsidies to its DWF, amounting to 44 percent of its total fisheries subsidies, despite its DWF accounting for only 22 percent of China’s total catch. While China’s DWF has evolved from being entirely state-owned to mostly privately owned, many of its important actors still rely heavily on investment from state-owned enterprises and loans from state-owned banks, and as another report stated, China’s DWF “would not be profitable without [state] subsidies.” China’s DWF is also strategically important for ensuring China’s national food security, and many of China’s global fishing bases have therefore been officially integrated into Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In a recent op-ed for the Hong Kong Free Press, Paul Harris, Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, provided more detail on the Chinese government’s interest in expanding its DWF:

The Chinese government promotes overfishing around the world by helping to pay for the building of large long-range trawlers, providing fleets with forecasts of where and when certain species are most prevalent around the world, and providing tax exemptions and extensive subsidies, notably for fuel. The latter increased by ten times in the five years up to 2011, when the government stopped releasing statistics, thereby making its promises to reduce those subsidies difficult to assess. The government also supports the fleet through the construction of port bases around the world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

[…] In addition to hoovering up fish, China’s distant-water fishing fleet has been used for the country’s territorial and military expansion. According to Tabitha Mallory at the University of Washington, China “has geopolitical motivations for wanting a global fishing presence. China’s strength as a fishing nation contributes to China’s global sea power, which gives China more influence in the international system.”

Chinese fishers serve as a “maritime militia,” with China acknowledging that its distant-water fishing vessels are “pseudo-military instruments.” Chinese fisherman are given “basic military training” and education in “safeguarding Chinese sovereignty.” Armed fishing boats are often used to harass vessels from other countries’ and to assert China’s claims of sovereignty over disputed waters, such as around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. They also serve as mobile surveillance stations for the Chinese military. [Source]

Steve Trent, founder and chief executive of EFJ, highlighted the difficulty of fully addressing the issues related to China’s DWF: “This isn’t 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.” Transparency is an essential part of the solution, as EFJ argues, in order to “reinforce accountability of vessel owners; increase accessibility to actionable information; improve monitoring of vessels by states and drive transparency in seafood supply chains to prevent IUU products reaching markets.” (Transparency is also a necessary element in addressing the human rights issues in China’s cotton industry, as experts argue.) Nichola Daunton at Euronews summarized some of the main recommendations of the EFJ report to hold those in China’s DWF accountable for any IUU or human rights abuses:

The report makes a number of recommendations to the Chinese state, including:

  • Ensuring that the information on Chinese DWF vessels is up to date in the FAO Global Record of Fishing Vessels.
  • Asking China to cooperate with foreign governments to clarify Chinese ‘hidden’ ownership in their fishing sectors.
  • Ratifying and implementing the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention C188 to address labour abuses. It also recommends a list of further protections for workers on board vessels, including making forced or bonded labour a specific offence.

The charity also makes recommendations to states that act as local flag carriers for the CDWF and to coastal, port and key market states that the CDWF operates in, including:

  • Ensuring all suspected fisheries infringements by CDWF vessels are thoroughly investigated and that sanctions are imposed.
  • Ensuring that the number of fishing licences issued is sustainable for the ecosystem.
  • Phasing out bottom trawling due to its well known negative ecological impacts.
  • Adopt minimum transparency laws for vessels operating within their EEZ. [Source]

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