Long a topic discussed in connection with the South China Sea, illegal Chinese fishing vessels are of increasing concern for Pacific Island nations.
As recently as early this week, the archipelago nation of Palau, east of the Philippines and north of New Guinea, announced that it had intercepted and detained a Chinese fishing vessel and six smaller boats in its territorial waters after it was confirmed the vessel had entered unlawfully and was illegally fishing sea cucumber.
The fishing vessel was apprehended in Helen Reef, Palau’s most southernmost region, by a Guardian-class patrol boat that Australia had delivered to Palau in September.
“They did have sea cucumber on there… it’s estimated about 500 pounds (225 kilograms),” Victor Remengesau, director of Palau’s division of marine law and enforcement, told reporters. “It’s unlawful entry. We may care about COVID and the spread of COVID, but we can’t just let people do whatever they want, and disguise [illegal activity].”
Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. told reporters on Wednesday that the government would be in contact with the Chinese government regarding the 28 detained crew, who are believed to be from Hainan province. Palau does not have formal diplomatic relations with China, however, as it recognizes the Republic of China government on Taiwan.
“[Authorities] will be checking for things like illegal cargo and when everything is finished, the Palau government will indicate the necessary charges,” Remengesau said. “Whether there is COVID or not, it is Palau’s responsibility to catch the vessel.”
In 2015, Palau announced the creation of the world’s sixth-largest fully protected marine sanctuary, which saw 80 percent of the nation’s maritime territory become off-limits to commercial fishing.
While it’s the first time a Chinese crew has been detained in Palau, Pacific Island leaders have become increasingly concerned about the threat posed by global fishing fleets, namely China’s, by far the largest.
In 2016, China captured 15.2 million tonnes of fish – around 20 percent of the global total – and consumed 38 percent of total global fish production, according to a London-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which claims there are an estimated 17,000 deep water vessels in China’s fleet.
“Having depleted fish stocks in domestic waters, the fleets of many industrialized countries are now travelling further afield to meet the rising demand for seafood. Much of this distant-water fishing takes place in the territorial waters of low-income countries. As well as competing against the interests of local people, DWF [distant water fishing] in low-income countries is often associated with unsustainable levels of extraction, and with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities,” a report published by the ODI in June found.
Concerns have also arisen around a proposed AU$200 million Chinese-built fishery plant on Daru Island, in Papua New Guinea’s Western Province, just several kilometers from Australia’s Torres Strait Islands.
The “comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park” was announced by China’s Ministry of Commerce as part of its Belt and Road Initiative but has caused concerns for Torres Strait Islanders.’
Torres Shire Mayor Vonda Malone told the ABC that the prospect of the Chinese moving into the region was “very, very concerning.”
“We have to stand up and voice our concerns about it because it will be on our doorstep. It will affect our communities, our people, our families, our resources,” she said. “We are dealing with a country that does not have the same values as us.”
Malone said the area is not known for its fish stocks and therefore fears that Chinese vessels could use the Torres Strait Treaty – which allows Papua New Guineans to fish in Australian waters – to “vacuum-up” fish.
“The Torres Strait has invested a considerable amount into fishery management and that’s been in play for over 10 years now. With a superpower like China entering into our space, there are so many questions about how those resources are going to be managed between small-scale fisheries and large commercial ventures,” she said.
“The local fishermen, they only deal with their own little vessels. They need to have the ability to have a catch to sustain their businesses and their families, compared to having someone like the Chinese government with large commercial vessels that can openly plunder our waters.”
In August, a vast fishing armada of around 300 Chinese vessels logged 73,000 hours of fishing during just one month as it pulled up thousands of tonnes of squid and fish off the Galapagos Islands, analysis by advocacy group, Oceana, found.
“For a month, the world watched and wondered what China’s enormous fishing fleet was doing off the Galapagos Islands, but now we know,” Dr. Marla Valentine, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency analyst said at the time.
“This massive and ongoing fishing effort of China’s fleet threatens the Galapagos Islands, the rare species that only call it home and everyone that depends on it for food and livelihoods. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of China’s huge distant-water fishing fleet on our oceans.”
Jeffrey Wall, a former PNG government adviser shared similar concerns in the ASPI earlier this month.
“I’m assured by people with a reasonable knowledge of PNG’s fisheries that there are no commercial fishing grounds close to Daru,” he said. “So why plan to spend $200 million on a fish-processing plant in an area not known to have commercial fishery resources?”
“The fact that the plant will lie just a few kilometers from Australian island communities is a likely reason.”
Xue Bing, China’s ambassador to Papua New Guinea, said the “investment “will definitely enhance PNG’s ability to comprehensively develop and utilize its own fishery resources and promote the economic and social development of Western Province and PNG.”