Chinese fishing boats’ illegal overfishing in the South Pacific has been devastating some island economies.
According to two former U.S. officials, “illegal, unregulated fishing by Chinese vessels has become common in American Samoa and Guam and as far east as Hawaii.”
American Samoa, noted for its volcanic peaks and tropical rainforests, is the southernmost territory of the United States.
At one point, a tuna cannery on American Samoa, one of the island’s largest employers, had to temporarily suspend operations due to a lack of fish.
China’s fishing fleets, which reach as far as Latin America, West Africa, and even Antarctica, have been adding to the strain on worldwide fishing stocks, according to organizations monitoring the issue.
In the past, the expansion of Chinese fishing vessels and their overseas reach has been fueled by tax breaks on imported fishing equipment purchased abroad, and by subsidies for fuel and vessel building. But it’s not clear how much of a role these factors have played in the South Pacific.
Members of a Chinese middle class who value high-quality fish in their diet are believed to be eager to acquire the tuna fish which can be found in the South Pacific.
Another much sought-after item is sea cucumber. Sea cucumbers are marine invertebrates related to sea urchins and star fish. They are used in soups and other dishes.
Sea cucumbers are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fatigue, impotence, constipation, and joint pain.
Other countries’ fishing vessels operate in the South Pacific as well.
Several years ago, the authorities in Palau burned four Vietnamese fishing boats off the island’s coast and arrested a captain. And a few years later, several Vietnamese boats were detained off the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.
The Solomon Islands are a former British territory. New Caledonia, located 750 miles east of Australia, is noted for its palm-lined beaches and lagoon, which is a major scuba-diving destination.
But tourism, a major source of income and employment in the South Pacific, has dropped off here and elsewhere in the region.
In some cases local authorities have pushed back against Chinese fishing boat intrusions.
The Republic of Palau, a Pacific island nation whose close relations with Taiwan have angered China in the past, detained a Chinese fishing vessel and six smaller boats in early December last year.
According to The Guardian newspaper, Palau officials alleged that the Chinese boats had been harvesting sea cucumbers in its territorial waters.
Palau, an archipelago of about 500 islands and 18,000 people is one of Taiwan’s few remaining allies in the South Pacific. Last year, Palau asked the United States to build ports, bases, and airfields on its islands, according to a Wall Street Journal report, but it’s not clear where that offer currently stands.
Meanwhile John Braddock, reporting for the “World Socialist Web Site,” described how Vanuatu officials seized two Chinese vessels in late January of this year for illegally fishing in the southwestern Pacific island nation’s territorial waters.
But not all Chinese fishing vessels operate illegally.
Some Chinese fishing boats are legitimately operating in Vanuatu’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from a base in Fiji.
A South Pacific Tuna Treaty, an ongoing agreement between the United States and 16 Pacific Island nations, allows for purse-seine vessels to legitimately fish in the EEZs party to the treaty.
Purse-seining involves setting a large circular “wall” of net around fish, then “pursing” the bottom together to capture them.
But according to the nonprofit organization Greenpeace, purse seining is a bad idea when it also targets a by-catch of non-target species or fish that simply can’t stand the pressure on their populations.
In the worst case, some fish can be driven to extinction by simply failing to maintain a large enough population to propagate the species.
For skipjack, the smallest species and the staple of tinned tuna, purse-seining is used throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
But skipjack tuna often shoal together with younger big eye and yellow fin tuna, and these end up in the nets as well along with sharks, rays, turtles, and other species of fish.
Big eye tuna is used as sashimi, a popular dish in both Japan and South Korea.
As Greenpeace notes, given the endangered species of Oceanic turtles, sharks, and big eye tuna, as well as the appetite for sushi around the world, the losers are traditional fishing communities who have been catching these fish with a minimal impact for centuries.
Timber harvests also problematic
In addition to the damage to local livelihoods caused by Chinese and other fishing boats, it should be mentioned that another tragic development has been the destruction of tropical forests in the South Pacific. Most of this has been carried out by companies shipping timber to China.
As of 2018, China had become the world’s largest timber importer followed by the United States, the European Union, and Japan.
Meanwhile, two former high-ranking U.S. officials have argued that U.S. territories and possessions in the Pacific find themselves “on the front lines of Beijing’s malign influence, economic predation, and military ambitions.”
Writing for the web site “RealClearDefense” on March 11 of this year, Alexander B. Gray and Douglas W. Domenech allege that “not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, has a foreign power such as China posed such a direct military threat in close proximity to the U.S. mainland.”
But the two allege that “Washington policymakers have thus far barely recognized the growing threat to vital American interests on our own territory or in adjacent waters.
Gray is a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Institute who served on the National Security Council from 2018 to 2021.
Domenech served as assistant security for insular and international affairs at the U.S Department of the Interior from 2017 to 2021
A couple of years ago, a Fijian who had been engaged as deck crew on a tuna longliner was ‘offloaded’ in Hong Kong; he knew no-one there and had little money.
Why was that action taken? Was he lazy, or ate ‘too much’, got sick, attacked the other crew, or? No. The reason was that he knew his rights and kept asking for them. Things like decent food and adequate rest time. He was a bother to the captain.
One fishing company representative recently confirmed to us what I’d been told by community members living adjacent to fishing company premises — that particular companies sometimes are so in need of deck crew that they send a driver into the settlements or along adjacent roads, looking for youngish (and brawny) men to work as deck crew. “Hey Boso - Want a job?”
Barring a few exceptions most 18- to 40-year-old men in coastal Suva settlement communities work as deck crew on Fiji-flagged and Distant Water Fishing Nation (DWFN) vessels, and most left school either at the end of primary school or half-way through secondary school. As teenagers they saw that their fathers or uncles got work easily on fishing vessels – so why bother finishing school? A job was there for the taking once the teenager reached 18 years of age. On a fishing vessel.
Fiji maritime laws state that all crew engaged on Fiji-flagged vessels must be certified. Are the pick-ups certified? Mostly ‘no’.
Apart from meeting legal requirements, there are benefits for fishing companies hiring certified deck crew. The first (lowest) certification is that of ‘Basic Sea Safety’ or ‘Pre-Sea Training’. It has four components – personal survival technique, personal safety and social responsibility, proficiency in elementary first aid, and basic fire prevention and control. At first glance, even a landlubber can recognise skills in those areas are of value on a vessel at sea.
It took a fair amount of energy and time for us to persuade the first of the settlement men, all with years of fishing experience under their belts, to attend the Fiji Maritime Academy and earn a certificate. At early discussions, the men’s body language at the thought of ’going back to school’ was – well – just as we thought it would be, exemplified by the chorus of ten volunteers for the first intake dwindling overnight to just three: seven men determined that their comfort zone was greater on a fishing vessel. It was the thought of maybe being paid F$5 (US$2.42) more a day that tipped the remaining three over the line, and having completed the one-month course, those men became their communities’ instant heroes. By now, eight more men have ‘gone back to school’ and there is a line-up for the next months’ classes.
Attending the FMA for one month doesn’t come cheaply and there are additional costs preparatory to the graduates receiving their sea safety certificate and logbook, the Seaman’s Employment Record Book, SERB. The average cost per person is F$950 (US$460).
To date, the schooling and primary upgrading of Fiji deck crew has been facilitated by a United Kingdom food processing company, World Wise Foods U.K. and its Chief Executive Officer, John Burton, to whom eleven men, their families, and us, are extremely grateful: John sent sufficient funds for 15 men to complete the course and receive their SERB and certificate.
Now demand has outstripped supply.
There are several reasons for reaching out to you, the reader, for support to continue this training exercise: it ensures that all vessel crew are legal; there is logistical and safety reasons for hiring trained seafarers; a trained crew can be a smaller crew; and the personal benefit gained by the trained men expresses itself by their enhanced work ethic and interest in taking on higher-level training. Above all, it lifts the standard of the Pacific tuna fishery, something to which all Pacific Islands nations aspire.
In short, it’s a no-brainer for fishing companies to only seek out brawny men as deck crew!
by Anish Chand
A Chinese national is presumed dead after he reportedly fell over-board a fishing vessel in Fiji waters three weeks ago.
And Fijian authorities have been made aware of the incident which is believed to have happened in the last week of March.
51-year-old Goa Ming Zhao was a crew member of the fishing vessel Zhong Rong 15.
He is believed to have fell overboard in the Kadavu passage.
Fiji Police received a report but its not clear if a search and rescue operation was mounted.
Based on eye-witness account of other crew members, its understood Goa Ming Zhao accidently fell overboard due to rough seas.
The Zhong Rong 15 is a Chinese long-liner fishing vessel and is owned by Rongcheng Ocean Fishery Limited.
Its registered port is Shidao.
The vessel is still berthed at Suva with inquiries on-going.
The Chinese Embassy in Suva is also aware of the incident.
By NETANI RIKA, Pasay City, the Philippines
DESPITE its promise to address the issue of illegal fishing in the Pacific, Vietnam has found itself out in the cold at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission for the second year in a row.
Desperate to be included among the membership of the world’s largest fishery, the Vietnamese have been thwarted by their inability to control the ubiquitous blue boats which plunder regional reefs of beche-de-mer and clams.
Last year at Denarau, Fiji, Vietnam promised to exert greater control over illegal fisheries by its fleet.
But on day one of the 14th WCPFC here, news broke of the interdiction of two more blue boats, this time by French authorities in New Caledonian waters after an extended surveillance exercise.
“We find this unacceptable,’’ said Manuel Ducrocq, Head of Delegation for New Caledonia.
“These blue boats are reef rapists. They take sharks from within the shark sanctuary without consideration for biological conditions and the importance of species to the eco-system.”
The most recent blue boat interdiction revealed that Vietnamese fishermen had taken shark skins and fins along with beche-de-mer and giant clams.
A total of 10 tonnes of beche-de-mer in 58 drums were seized by the French Navy from two blue boats. The captains of the vessels have been convicted and fined by the local magistrate in Noumea.
But the cost of the illegal activities goes much further than what the poachers take.
Ducrocq said that by law French authorities were obliged to accommodate and feed the arrested crews and later pay for their repatriation to Vietnam.
“For 12 crew members we are obliged by French law to see that they are accompanied by 15 police officers,” Ducrocq said.
“So not only do we have the cost of surveillance, the interdiction and then their accommodation but in addition we must pay 15 return airline tickets for our police to ensure these people arrive in Vietnam.
“That is a huge cost which is borne by the government and cannot be recovered.”
French authorities estimate that the most recent infraction by the Vietnamese will cost them around USD1.5 million.
While blue boat activities have no direct link to tuna fisheries and the 14th WCPFC, the inaction or inability of Vietnam concerning its fleet has implications on its status as a Co-operating Non-Member of the commission.
“If they cannot control small boats which poach smaller fish, then what about management of (the larger fishing) fleet?” Ducrocq asked.
“We’ve had discussions with Vietnam at a political level and it’s obvious that it’s hard for them to manage their coastal fisheries.”
The task is so hard that these small boats which can spend up to 30 days at sea are able to slip past their national patrols and enter the waters of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and New Caledonia.
In the most recent case two boats were spotted by French maritime patrol aircraft based at Tontouta International Airport in New Caledonia and tracked for two days before navy units were sent to intercept them.
“New Caledonia cannot accept that others come and take resources from our territorial waters,” Ducrocq said.
“It’s a violation of the rights of the native population.
“The (blue boat) activities come at a huge cost to communities which are highly dependent on the ocean resources. Their food security is directly threatened and there are livelihood issues at stake here for the native community.”
Ducrocq said the intention of the WCPFC was to allow Small Island Developing States – most of them much more vulnerable than New Caledonia - to manage their resources.
“For the native population the sea is their refrigerator,” Ducrocq said. “They take what they need and leave the rest for later and in this way they maintain the ecological balance.
“But poachers threaten the maintenance of that balance and now we find they are even targeting uninhabited island resources.”
In its effort to achieve cooperation through consensus, the collective WCPFC membership is often reluctant to take punitive measures against members and partners.
However, Vietnam’s consistent failure to address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing outside of the tuna fisheries has forced New Caledonia to look at taking unprecedented action.
“If Vietnam’s response (to the blue boats issue) is not sufficient, we may have to withhold membership (from the WCPFC),” Ducrocq said.
“We are waiting to see whether they are serious or not. We must think positively and Vietnam has a unique opportunity here to make a change.”
Given that its last response was to deny any responsibility for illegal activities conducted by private sector fishing fleets, it’s difficult to see Vietnam taking harsh measures against the blue boats.
History shows that Vietnam will most .likely claim inability to monitor and police illegal operators.
And that will mean it continues to be seen by the region as a villain whose only place at the next WCPFC will be out in the cold.
By NETANI RIKA, Pasay City, the Philippines
WHEN the Pacific met its international partners at the 12th Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in Bali, Indonesia in 2015 it was grappling with illegal operations at sea.
Figures at the time claimed that Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fisheries activities cost around USD600 million annually in the Pacific.
And 95 per cent of that activity – according to the international environment advocate, Greenpeace – is conducted by licensed vessels.
Robust guidelines put in place by the Forum Fisheries Agency have attempted to increase monitoring and surveillance of the purse seine fleet which operates in the region.
With around 90 per cent of the fleet monitored by on-board observers, the purse seiners are estimated to account for 70 per cent of illegal activities.
That’s according to figures released by the Pew Charitable Trust.
A Pew study reports harvested or trans-shipped tuna in the region at about UDS616.11 million a year - 12 per cent of the UDS5 billion paid to fishermen for their tuna catches in the region in 2014.
Despite recent efforts and observer coverage, the estimated volume of IUU product was found to be highest in the purse seine fishery, which accounted for 70 per cent of the illegal catch.
Much of that activity was driven by the use of illegal fish aggregating devices.
The Pew Charitable Trust’s Amanda Nickson said it was clear from the figures that transhipment at sea is unacceptable.
“Our position remains very clearly that transshipment at sea should be banned until there are sufficient controls in place to ensure that we don’t have it operating as a loophole for IUU activities,” Nickson said at the 14th WCPFC Meeting in the Philippines.
“At this point I don’t see that we’re seeing a great deal of political will to address the issue as we would like but we certainly hope to see improved discussion.”
James Gibbon of the Pew Charitable Trusts said the WCPFC initially envisioned transshipment as a rare event.
“Unfortunately because WCPFC has not formalised the guidelines like they were supposed to, they basically rubber-stamped any request for long liners to trans-ship,” Gibbon said.
“So at this point, 52 per cent of long liners operating in the WCPFC have the authorisation to trans-ship. And that is not what the WCPFC envisioned when they put these regulations in place.”
One of the other issues confronting the industry is that independent observer reports are often not submitted to the WCPF Secretariat.
In 2016 there were approximately 900 at sea trans-shipments but only one observer report made it to the secretariat.
“So there is very little monitoring of what is going on,” Gibbon said
“There’s a lot of transshipment that initially was thought was not going to occur but as a result of commission inaction has actually allowed this to occur.”
Gibbon believes cooperation from all the relevant authorities is key to the success of any monitoring programme.
“The observer programmes (must make) sure that their reports are submitted both to the national, sub-regional and secretariat,” he said.
“And it’s going to take those authorities working together to cross check between the catch reports of the fishing vessels, the transshipment reports of what actually is transferred and then also the landing reports and making sure that all that information make sense.”
That speaks to a broader ongoing issue of needing a strong compliance regime within the commission.
Amanda Nickson: “We’ve seen these trial compliance regimes roll through but we believe they could be more transparent and we believe there needs to be a more formalised and permanent compliance monitoring system in place. “
So, for how long will those discussions continue without concrete measures being put in place to end the illegal activities?
Forum Fisheries Agencies Director-General, James Movick, raised the issue of the need for more observers with the relevant equipment to report illegal activities in real time.
He was asked whether two years after talks in Indonesia the discussion on observers was merely talk without action and completely unachievable.
“No, I think we can achieve it. We’re experimenting,” Movick said.
“We have trials underway and the commission itself is seeking to develop standards for e-monitoring and e-reporting and work quite well in other fisheries around the world.”
Movick said current work concentrated on how to adapt e-reporting standards for operating conditions in the Pacific.
“We should see a higher degree of monitoring capability for these boats,” Movick said.
“I don’t think it’s an impossible task but as the scientist do, there will be margins of errors built into the scientific analyses. By and large we will have sufficient, verifiable data the scientists will be happy that they’ve got something statistically sound.”
Movick and Ludwig Kumoru – CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement – believe the e-monitoring option is possible in five years.
“With the way PNA is implementing the Vessel Day Scheme for the longline – within five -years is achievable,” Kumoru said.
“But first of all we need to get it done within our zones, then and only then can we look to extend it to the high seas.”
The Parties to the Nauru Agreement are the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
PNA member countries allow tuna fisheries vessel owners to buy days of fishing at sea for a specific monetary value,
This scheme places a limit on the number of vessels operating in the waters of the PNA in an attempt to ensure resource sustainability.
Monitoring at sea, however, is only one part of the equation.
Strong observation measures in ports where fishing boats land their catch are equally important.
Amanda Nickson said strong port-state measures coupled with a credible observer base were two ways to stop IUU fishing.
Two years after Bali the gaps in the system remain
“We don’t yet have comprehensive port-state controls, we don’t yet have significant enough level of observer coverage on long liners and we don’t have a sufficient system in place to ensure the safety of those that were asking to help us ensure the system is legal and verifiable,” Nickson said.
“So there are a lot of gaps yet to plug.”