Chinese illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations have had a detrimental impact extending far beyond the ocean. From the Gambia to the Galapagos, Chinese vessels have overfished and polluted local waters, leaving domestic fishing industries decimated in their wake. The resource scarcity, food insecurity, and economic instability exacerbated by IUU fishing have the potential to fuel civil conflict, irregular migration, and poor governance. Left unchecked, IUU fishing presents a serious threat to global security.
Chinese Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing: An Overview
Most Chinese IUU fishing operations are carried out by vessels from China’s extensive distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet, which is the largest in the world. Official data puts the fleet at around 2,600 vessels. However, a recent study from the Overseas Development Institute suggests that the Chinese DWF fleet numbers closer to 17,000 ships. Estimates put the overall Chinese fishing capacity (near- and distant-water ships) at anywhere between 200,000 and 800,000 vessels.
Chinese fishing operations are subsidized by the Chinese government on the scale of billions of dollars annually and generate an estimated $160 billion in annual fish sales. They are not restricted to any one region: Chinese vessels have appeared on the West African coast, in South American waters, and near the Korean peninsula. This geographic spread is motivated in part by climate change, which has altered the composition of native Chinese fish populations and forced fishermen to search elsewhere for a desirable catch.
IUU Fishing as a Global Security Threat Multiplier
Chinese IUU fishing operations have had adverse consequences for the countries in whose waters they take place.
Environmental Damage: IUU fishing and associated activities often cause environmental harm. For example, the catch from Chinese IUU fishing is often manufactured into fishmeal, a protein feed used in fish farms. Unregulated fishmeal factories can pollute nearby bodies of water and cause fish kills, as was the case at a Chinese fishmeal factory in the Gambia.
Similarly, Chinese fishermen have employed practices that indiscriminately kill sea life and destroy marine ecosystems. Acts of longlining, bottom trawling, and dynamite fishing can devastate coral reefs and other essential components of the ecosystem, as has been observed in the Gambia and Ghana.
Economic Instability: By depleting native fish stocks (by upwards of 80% in some areas), IUU fishing has decimated domestic fishing industries and forced local fishermen to seek out other means of employment. On average, IUU fishing costs seafood workers across the supply chain an estimated $2.8-$5.4 billion per year in household income. Unreported fishing also costs governments an estimated $0.2-$1.6 billion in tax revenues per year, funds that could otherwise be spent on public services.
Food Insecurity: IUU-related overfishing has exacerbated food insecurity. The countries where IUU fishing takes place often depend on fish as their primary source of dietary protein. Additionally, a startling 90% of the fish used to manufacture fishmeal could be used to feed humans instead.
Governance: Chinese IUU fishing depends on corruption at all stages of the supply chain. For example, in the Gambia, Chinese fishmeal factories evade punishment for improperly dumping waste into open bodies of water by offering bribes to government inspectors. Similarly, off the Gambian coast, Chinese fishing vessels mask the size of their daily catches by refusing to maintain fishing logbooks as mandated by law.
Human Security: Chinese IUU fishing propagates unsafe labor practices and environments. Chinese fishing vessels often depend on “sea slavery” (forced labor) to operate, and as depleted fish stocks force local fishermen to fish further from shore, many have been stranded and died from exposure.
Each of these consequences of IUU fishing presents a threat to global security. Overfishing, environmental damage, and poor employment prospects exacerbate economic instability and could cause resource scarcity, irregular migration, transnational crime, and civil conflict to spike. The corruption permeating the IUU fishing process perpetuates poor governance and engenders low levels of trust in government, factors that could foment popular unrest, humanitarian crisis, and state failure.
Additionally, IUU fishing has provided China a means to spread its influence and further its political and territorial aims. The Chinese government has encouraged vessels to fish near disputed islands in the South China Sea, where China has long sought to exercise its sovereignty, and has propagated exploitative relationships with the developing states in whose waters Chinese ships sail. As one former head of Senegal’s Oceanic Research Institute said,
“It’s hard to say no to China when they are building your roads.”
Combatting IUU Fishing in the Oceans
Many governments lack the capacity or political will to police Chinese IUU fishing in their waters. In light of this, foreign entities both public and private have offered their support.
U.S. Armed Forces: The United States Coast Guard, alongside the Department of Defense, Department of State and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, has played a key role in supporting IUU regulation efforts across the globe. For the past 25 years, the Coast Guard has executed Operation North Pacific Guard in partnership with Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and Canada to provide surface and air patrols and uphold international maritime law in the Northern Pacific Rim.
More recently, the Coast Guard has collaborated with sister forces in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), providing nearly 50 boats to LAC governments since 2015 to combat IUU fishing. In late 2020, the Coast Guard launched Operation Southern Cross, a collaboration with Guyana, Brazil, and Uruguay to conduct joint maritime exercises and enhance cooperation around maritime security.
Public-Private Partnerships: In recent years, the private sector has stepped in to support governmental IUU fishing regulation efforts. Sea Shepherd, an international non-profit that carries out direct action campaigns to combat IUU fishing, is at the forefront of this charge. Through collaborations with the governments of Mexico, Liberia, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tanzania and others, Sea Shepherd has apprehended 52 illegal fishing vessels over the last four years.The work of Sea Shepherd and other similar organizations highlights the role that public-private partnerships can play as force multipliers to bolster governmental maritime security efforts. The work of Sea Shepherd and other similar organizations highlights the role that public-private partnerships can play as force multipliers to bolster governmental maritime security efforts.