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Chinese ‘Devil’s Vessels’ - Sweeping Up The Seas

Fishing is intertwined with human rights violations, Chinese global hegemony, and a threat to US food security.

Credit: Jorge Cortell, via Wikimedia Commons

It is logical to assume that the most populous country, China, will require the most amount of food to feed its people. But what defies logic and demands scrutiny is that Chinese fishing activity accounts for nearly half of the world's fishing!

Beijing's marine policies to feed its population, amounting to 1.45 billion as of April 2022, and support the country's ongoing efforts to increase its population, are jeopardizing the food security of many developing nations and simultaneously endangering marine ecosystems.

Between 1987 and 2019, China's marine activity increased by 150%. In 2018, China was the world's largest producer of marine capture with 12.7 million tons. China alone accounted for 15% of the world's production - 20% of which is reported to originate from China’s distant water fleet (CDWF).

A recently released Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) report reveals that China's distant fishing fleet (CDWF), defined as any fleet that operates outside their national waters, is the largest globally. It is estimated to have 2,407 ships but is suspected to be around 17,000 vessels. Disturbingly, the report also states that the fleet is engaged in illegal fishing practices, often captures endangered species, and is riddled with human rights abuses of its crew.

Marine Impact

The Environmental Justice Foundation Charitable Trust, a UK registered charity, gathered testimonies from over 100 crew members of the CDWF. Based on their accounts, 95% of the crewmembers witnessed illegal fishing practices outside China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Fishing without a license or authorization, using prohibited gear, and capturing prohibited species were some of the most common offenses recorded against them.

A significant portion of the CDWF is made up of trawlers. Bottom trawling is a method that sweeps out the seafloor, depletes fish stocks (as a result of high levels of by-catch), and causes harm to marine ecosystems. Overfishing also endangers the well-being of coastal communities, as a majority depend on marine wealth for their livelihood.

Chinese Trawler

Indiscriminate fishing is a concerning issue. Many marine species, such as tuna and sharks, are on restricted lists and should not be caught, especially for commercial purposes. But, the CDWF pays little heed to such directives and catches everything from seals to sharks. Illegal and harmful practices, like finning—the gruesome practice of removing only the shark's fins (considered its most valuable part) and throwing the shark back into the ocean, deplete stocks in the long run and cause unnecessary misery and waste.

Graphic video of sharks and other fish being beaten and speared - Copyright Environmental Justice Foundation

Human Impact

More than half of the crewmembers had physical violence perpetrated against them during fishing operations, and 85% of the crewmembers experienced abusive working and living conditions. Grueling working hours, inadequate food, and contaminated drinking water created a harsh and inhospitable work atmosphere.

On top of the physical abuse, 97% of the crew members interviewed said they had experienced some form of debt bondage or had identification papers such as passports confiscated.

Impact On Nations

Interestingly, for a Communist regime that takes pride in its ironclad state control, the CDWF is largely in private hands. Private companies own 68.8% of the vessels, and the Chinese government directly owns only 22.5%. Beijing claims that private ownership makes it difficult to regulate or restrict these fishing vessels, which are primarily operating in international waters away from its shores.

Much of the CDWF's approved offshore fishery projects, up to 78.5%, are centered around Africa. They take advantage of the continent's rampant corruption and the limited resources at the various governments' disposal to enforce fishing regulations.

Private ownership allows the fishing fleets and companies to set up corporations in Ghana, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and others to buy up fishing rights. For instance, the EJF group's report estimates that some 90% of Ghana's industrial trawl fleet is owned by Chinese corporations using local "front" companies to register as Ghanaian to get around international law. These "Ghanaian" fishing fleets bring in an estimated 2.35 million tons of fish a year in West Africa, accounting for 50% of China's total distant water catch and worth some U.S. $5 billion.

Impact On The U.S

Although flanked by two oceans, the United States only produces 20% of its edible fishing products domestically. At least 70-80% of fish sold in U.S. markets is imported. China has been pushing into key U.S. import nations' waters, including Indonesia, Ecuador, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The top 5 countries that the United States imports fish from are Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Ecuador, and Thailand. Three of these countries, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, are under threat from China's ever-growing naval militia over its aggressive claims over the South China Sea.

Ecuador, which is in the Eastern Pacific in South America, seems like it would be a secure source for fish in the U.S. However, in 2020, a fleet of 270 Chinese fishing ships set up operations in the Galapagos Islands. The Ecuadorian government's demand that the fleet leave its waters was met with apathy.

Geopolitical Impact

Beyond jeopardizing the world's food security and marine sustainability, the CDWF's activities serve Beijing's sinister objective. "Against the backdrop of China's larger geopolitical aspirations, the country's commercial fishermen often serve as de-facto paramilitary personnel whose activities the Chinese government can frame as private actions," Ian Urbina wrote in a report published by the Yale School of the Environment in 2020. "Under a civilian guise, this ostensibly private armada helps assert territorial domination, especially pushing back fishermen or governments that challenge China's sovereignty claims that encompass nearly all of the South China Sea."

"China's leaders see distant water fleets as a way to project presence around the world. The aim is to be present all over the world's oceans so that they can direct the outcomes of international agreements that cover maritime resources," stated Tabitha Mallory, CEO of China Ocean Institute and affiliate professor at the University of Washington in March 2021.


The United States needs to prevent the Chinese fishing fleet from taking over the world's oceans and uphold international maritime laws. It must educate countries such as Ghana and other developing nations about their rights to fishing and marine wealth.

As well as promoting and educating trade partners, the U.S. needs to invest more in domestic aquaculture. Depending on how events develop in the South China Sea, the U.S. could lose almost half of its fish supplies, causing prices to rise and limiting the U.S. population's access to one of the most nutritious food sources.

Moreover, the CDWF fleet's alternate agenda of acting as Beijing's proxy in international waters could imperil global peace.

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