China's growing fishing fleet sparks complaints of alleged encroachment into exclusive economic zones and illegal activity

° The presence of more than 500 vessels raises concerns about continued radar evasion, use of unauthorised extraction systems and disobedience to coastguards.

° The governments of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru issued a statement calling for the supervision of an activity that Beijing refuses to submit to international inspection.

° Intimidation is reminiscent of the use of Chinese fishermen as a "strike force" in the South China Sea; here the goal is not about gaining sovereignty, but about fishing.

► The Chinese ship Hong Pu 16, followed by the Argentine patrol vessel ARA Bouchard, in May 2020 [Argentine Navy].

report SRA 2021 / Paola Rosenberg [ PDF version].

Over the last year, several Latin American countries have complained about Chinese economic predation, due to the massive presence of Chinese fishing boats in the vicinity of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the poaching that is taking place there. They have also denounced the use by Chinese fishing vessels of unauthorised fishing techniques that deplete key fishing grounds and erode marine sustainability.

issue The arrival from China of fishing vessels of what is normally categorised as the Distant Water Fleet (DWF) began to occur in the Latin American maritime contour in 2001 with around twenty vessels; since then their number has been rapidly increasing and the most recent figures speak of some 500 ships. The unease of the most affected countries is not new, but in 2020 the complaints were louder and more formal. Moreover, in the open era of confrontation with Beijing, Washington came out in defence of the interests of its hemispheric neighbours.

China has the world's largest deep-sea fishing fleet, which is expanding as the fleets of other fishing nations are shrinking. Its size is unclear, as it often operates through small front companies that blur its national origin, but it has been estimated to total 17,000 vessels. In this activity far from China itself, the fleet catches two million tonnes of fish, accounting for 40 per cent of the world total in distant waters. Some of its catch is result illegal fishing; China has the worst record in the world for illegal fishing practices, according to Global Initiative's evaluation .

Map taken from China Dialogue and Global Fishing Watch

The strategic Galapagos

Fishing is one of the most important resources for several Latin American countries, which is why the massive Chinese presence in the vicinity of their exploitation waters, if there has been no penetration of these waters, has generated concern. In the last year, there have been many reports of Chinese fishing off Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, mostly linked to the capture of squid, but also of other species such as horse mackerel, mackerel, tuna and southern hake. These countries believe that overfishing and the capture of endangered species such as the giant squid are taking place, threatening the preservation of fish stocks and biodiversity, as well as the possession of false licences and the violation of the sovereignty of coastal states by allegedly illegally entering their EEZs. Fishermen from these coastal states increasingly report the presence of Chinese vessels in an intimidating attitude, carrying out acts that threaten not only their natural resources but also their security.

The main accusations came from July onwards in Ecuador. Earlier that month, the Ecuadorian navy warned of the presence of a Chinese fishing fleet of some 260 vessels fishing just outside the EEZ of the Galapagos Islands, which are under Ecuadorian sovereignty. By the end of the month, the fleet had increased to more than 342 vessels. The Galapagos archipelago was declared by Unesco as reservation of the biosphere, because it is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna unique in the world. For this reason, exploitation in this area implies very large losses in terms of marine biodiversity.

In addition, half of the Chinese fleet behaved suspiciously, turning off the tracking and identification system. It was an evasion of marine radars that lasted for almost three weeks, as denounced by the Ecuadorian defence minister, Oswaldo Jarrín. The minister implied that this attitude was intended to conceal illegal fishing and perhaps also incursion into waters under Ecuadorian protection in order to fish there. In any case, he specified that the Ecuadorian navy was only able to find a couple of vessels within the Galapagos EEZ, which claimed to be using "innocent passage".

The country's president, Lenín Moreno, formally raised the complaints with the Beijing authorities, informing them that Ecuador would strongly assert its maritime rights over its EEZ, and announced a coordinated position with other Latin American governments. In fact, other countries in the region soon saw the Chinese fleet arrive in the vicinity of their waters. The ships left the corridor of international waters that exists between the Galapagos EEZ and the Ecuadorian coast, where they spent some time to catch the fish that migrate from one side to the other, and then moved south, first in the vicinity of the waters of Peru and Chile, and then, passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic, of Argentina.

These countries were backed by the United States, whose department of state said in August that the massive presence of Chinese fishing vessels and their internship to disable tracking systems, rename vessels and dispose of marine debris was "very troubling". President Donald Trump also spoke negatively on the occasion of his September speech to the United Nations. Washington has long been attentive to China's growing presence on the continent, not only commercially, but also in the management of strategic infrastructure such as port terminals. The Galapagos, specifically, have a special strategic value due to their status access routes to the Panama Canal.

Request for inspections

After Ecuador, due to the threat off their waters, Peru and Chile activated Global Fisheries Surveillance and mobilised air and naval patrols to closely monitor the advance of the Chinese fishing fleet. When the Chinese fishing fleet moved into the Atlantic in December 2020, the Argentine naval force also deployed naval and air units to ensure control over its maritime spaces.

In November, the governments of Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Colombia (the latter's EEZ borders the corridor between the two Ecuadorian maritime areas) issued a joint statement, in which they expressed their concern over the presence "of a large fleet of foreign-flagged vessels that have been carrying out fishing activities in recent months in international waters close to our jurisdictional waters". The grade chose not to explicitly mention China (moreover, several vessels in the fleet were flagged differently, although they were Chinese for all intents and purposes), but it was clear in which direction they were directing their denunciation of "fishing activities not subject to control or reporting".

Latin American countries are demanding that China agree to inspections, in the presence of staff if necessary, of suspicious vessels, even if they have remained in international waters. Beijing responds that it has already established moratoriums at certain times of the year on squid fishing in the region. However, the lack of cooperation so far and the growing demand from the Chinese market suggests that this subject of activities will continue to increase.

As it has done in the Pacific, the United States has sent Coast Guard vessels to the South Atlantic to confront Chinese incursions, in this case in joint exercises with Brazil and Uruguay. It is precisely with the latter country that Washington is trying to arrange some kind of subject of partnership that would allow for greater inspection of the maritime area , as it considers that Argentina could lend itself excessively to Chinese requirements.

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