The outcry generated last year, when a flotilla of around 325 Chinese ships were seen fishing just outside the Galapagos Sanctuary, still resonates today. What were so many Chinese ships doing more than 9,500 miles from their reference ports? The nutrient-rich waters around the Ecuadorian archipelago are a great reason to travel so far.
Distant Water Fishing (DWF) refers to fishing outside territorial waters and allows fishing fleets to expand their operations to faraway places and maintain them for months. There are three main issues with DWF: the scale of the fishery, the lack of transparency, and the link to illegal activities.
World fishing capacity has more than doubled since 1950, fueled by subsidies, technological advances and fish hunger. However, global catches have declined by 80%. This means that as fishing capacity increases, the fish are in decline.
Much of the new fishing capacity is believed to be found in DWF fleets which can operate far away, often in the waters of low-income countries. Migration of fishing operations is driven by depletion of fish stocks in national waters, access to cheap labor abroad, lack of oversight and low legal risk.
Low-income countries are likely to host illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities in their waters due to bad governance. However, no one knows exactly how many ships with DWF capability there are in the world.
It is believed that only five countries are responsible for 90 percent of DWF capacity. As Russia and European countries slowed down their operations, the Chinese and Taiwanese fleets grew to become the main fleets. A report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) estimated that China alone has more than 16,000 ships with such capacity; in comparison, the European Union reports less than 300 DWF vessels.
In other words, almost all DWF comes from ships from high income countries. This so-called “marine colonialism” occurs despite the apparent non-profitability fishing abroad.
Rather, the global fish hunt is driven by consumer preferences, concerns about food security, and economic and geopolitical interests – whatever the needs and interests of low-income countries alongside the world’s last major fisheries. .
To manage their fish stocks sustainably, countries need good information on fishing practices. How many fish are caught? How big are these fish? What species are accidentally caught? These data can inform scientific quotas for fishing fleets and effective enforcement by national agencies.
But fishing data is often unreliable. Operators may accidentally or intentionally distort the invoice or under-report their catch. The increase in DWFs further undermines this effort, as they may not report their catches locally and fish may travel long distances to markets.
DWF operators are often enabled through opaque bilateral agreements between their host countries and developing countries. The secrecy of these agreements makes it impossible to control them. As Global Financial Integrity reports, some authorities turn a blind eye due to various factors, including corruption and “checkbook diplomacy”, where access to fisheries is traded for development projects. This creates conditions for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
In one 2018 report, ODI explored current efforts to support fisheries monitoring and enforcement, including the use of new resources such as large datasets, satellite imagery and machine learning. So far, there is no single, public information tool on global fisheries.
Private initiatives to combat IUU fishing have seen their potential undermined by the limited size and insufficient quality of their datasets and the lack of collaboration. Data from Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) – a tracking system that records dynamic information about vessels as they move from place to place – are useful, but vessels can hold back AIS data to hide their operations.
DWF fleets are often linked to illicit activities ranging from fishing in the waters of other countries without authorization, to vessels denature their fishing activity or fish to the detriment of an ecosystem.
While exclusive economic zones protect waters within 200 nautical miles of the coast, ships outside these areas evade local jurisdiction as they are in international waters. A ship in international waters is governed by the laws of the country in which it is registered. As a result, a Chinese or Russian vessel just outside the exclusive economic zone of Ecuador or Senegal is governed by Chinese or Russian law – with little respect for the food or jobs of local fishing communities.
Many DWF ships choose a flag of convenience. In this case, they are registered in one country but belong to citizens of another country. The largest registers – including Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, which concentrate 40 percent of the world fleet – generate a flow of profits from these fleets but exercise little supervision.
Opaque registration and ownership structures allow money laundering and other illicit activities to go unchecked. A 2019 C4ADS investigation of 29 IUU fishing networks reported that 60 percent of IUU fishing intersected with customs fraud, human trafficking, drug trafficking, organized crime, money laundering or tax evasion.
IUU fishing harms the ecology, livelihoods and food security of coastal communities, which “bear the heaviest burden»Of IUU fishing. Economic losses from IUU fishing amount to tens of billions of pounds per year, including lost tax revenue, jobs in the coastal fishing industry and depleted food supplies. An ODI report in 2016 estimated that with the right policies to limit IUU fishing, more than 300,000 vital new jobs could be created in West Africa.
The combination of the scale of the fishery and the lack of transparency is catastrophic, allowing overfishing and a range of illegal activities. Ecuador recently entered fins of 30,000 killed sharks destined for Asian markets. In some Latin American countries, local populations of popular species such as squid and sea cucumbers are wiped out. The excess capacity of DWF is used to eliminate competition from the oceans; some species like dolphins are decimated.
The solutions are, on the one hand, greater transparency and follow-up to inform a response. Second, a drastic reduction in fleets – especially the mega-fleets of China and other fishing nations. Finally, a serious persecution of IUU activity, making it too risky to participate in it. The action has been postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis, but time is running out for fish stocks and fishing communities.
Miren Gutierrez is a leading climate and sustainability researcher at the Overseas Development Institute