World’s Largest Fishing Fleet in China Looks Like It Sprang from a Science Fiction Film

by Jennifer Shea

The world’s largest fishing fleet is Chinese. And it looks like something out of a sci-fi film. But the problems it’s causing are not the stuff of fiction.

The rapacious Chinese fleet set off global alarm bells last year when hundreds of its ships got caught fishing for squid off the Galapagos Islands. That’s the habitat of some of the planet’s most endangered species. Indeed, as the Associated Press reports, decades of overfishing in China’s own waters have caused its fleet to wander farther and farther from Chinese territory.

China’s fleet is officially limited to 3,000 ships. But some estimates put it at thousands more. The de facto size of the fleet and its recent excursions into the waters of the Americas are triggering worldwide concern that it’s going to fatally deplete marine stocks.

The U.S. Coast Guard has now elevated illegal fishing above piracy as its primary maritime security threat.

China Exports Its Domestic Over-Fishing Problem

“Beijing is exporting its over-fishing problem to South America,” Captain Peter Hammarstedt, director of campaigns for Sea Shepherd, a Netherlands-based ocean conservation group, told the AP. “China is chiefly responsible for the plunder of shark and tuna in Asia.”

Biologists say squid have never faced a threat as dire as the surge of Chinese fishing off the coasts of South America. And that includes climate change, they say.

The number of Chinese vessels in the south Pacific has skyrocketed over the last decade. It went from 54 in 2009 to 557 in 2020. Even more ominously for the natural resources it’s plundering, the size of China’s catch has grown from 70,000 tons to 358,000 tons.

“It really is like the Wild West,” Hammarstedt told the AP. “Nobody is responsible for enforcement out there.”

Negotiations Have Begun on a High Seas Treaty

Nearly half the planet is comprised of waters that are basically lawless. They’re not controlled by any government or agreement. That could change soon, however. Negotiations have begun on the inaugural High Seas Treaty. If successfully hammered out, it would dramatically increase international cooperation at sea.

China has proven bellicose on any number of other issues, including curbing greenhouse gas emissions. So whether it will cooperate is an open question. The ships in its fleet routinely go dark, turning off their safety transponders or automated identification systems. That allows them to carry out illegal fishing operations.

The Chinese government does not reign in its ships, which are violating a United Nations maritime treaty when they do that. In fact, it subsidizes cheap fuel for them. And that amplifies the environmental consequences of China’s plundering.

Some of the Chinese ships have also been found to be complicit in human trafficking. The U.S. did cancel 15 Chinese nationals’ visas on those grounds last year. But that represented the first step the U.S. government has taken to address fishing industry abuses.