China’s Hunger for Seafood Is Now Latin America’s Problem
Massively in debt to Beijing, countries in the region can’t stand up to China to protect their coasts.
China’s economic predation is back, this time in some of the most ecologically sensitive waters in the world—in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, in Peru, and soon, the waters off Chile. In just one month, according to a report by Oceana, a marine conservation group, an armada of nearly 300 vessels spent an eye-popping 73,000 hours fishing off Galápagos. Far from a Chinese voyage of the HMS Beagle, the fleet is a brazen violation of norms around environmental protection and sustainable fishing (and sometimes sovereignty) and an attempt to plunder resources to meet growing Chinese demand. Chinese fishing could potentially wipe out vulnerable local communities that depend on the sea as a source of sustenance and livelihood. In turn, Latin American countries, along with the United States, must increase the menu of options available to monitor and deter this behavior.
It should surprise nobody that China’s distant-water fleet is now ambling about off the Pacific coast of South America. China’s fishing fleets form a nearly ubiquitous presence in the South China Sea and are also frequently found off the west coast of Africa. Visits to South American waters have likewise increased in recent years. The area is rich in fish populations because it benefits from the famous Humboldt Current, which carries nutrient-rich water from Chile all the way to the shores of southern Ecuador. Even as China’s waters suffer from depleted stockpiles, the Chinese public’s growing appetite for seafood has forced the Chinese Communist Party to search for solutions to secure its supply. Today, consumption there represents one-third of the world total. In turn, the country has had to look for fish stocks further afield—with devastating environmental consequences.
China’s vast operations have been overfishing the world’s oceans for years. In 2019, the country had the worst score in the world on the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Index. Encouraged by multibillion-dollar subsidies, China’s distant-water fleet, including fishing, supply, and transport boats, may number some 17,000 vessels. (By contrast, the U.S. distant-water fleet comprises around 300 vessels.) In the past, Latin American countries have been wary of criticizing China’s violations, either because they fear Chinese retaliation in the form of reducing imports of raw materials or because they owe billions to the Chinese government. Recent violations, however, have brought a renewed focus on the challenge and a noteworthy change in the posture of many Latin American countries.
In order to fish in both international waters and, worryingly, sometimes within a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Chinese vessels reportedly turn off their automatic identification systems to hide their locations when they drift into waters they don’t have rights to. Elsewhere, in the Philippines, for instance, China has negotiated bilateral fisheries access agreements that include fishing rights in EEZs (although a court ruled that concession unconstitutional). Chinese ships also engage in a musical-chairs game of name-swapping, employ so-called flags of convenience, and utilize ship-to-ship transfers at high sea to further curtail surveillance of their activities.
These practices facilitate illegal and unregulated fishing, and even contribute to ugly human rights abuses aboard vessels. Meanwhile, by trawling waters, a practice whereby a fishing boat slowly drags a net along the ocean bed, scooping up or killing most things in its path, coral reefs and other ocean habitats are increasingly at risk. Unused fish parts (“bycatch”) are discarded back into the water, and the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from China’s fishing fleets is unfathomable. This is to say nothing of the gruesome practice of shark-finning.
Perhaps most ominously for South American countries, meanwhile, Chinese fishing fleets have occasionally served as the vanguard of an aggressive geopolitical strategy in disputed waters, especially in the South China Sea. Although it may be many years before China could engage in a similarly assertive campaign off the Pacific coast of South America, the year-round presence of its fleet should drive the urgency to find a regional solution.
Particularly because of the potential for geopolitical strife, the United States should more actively support diplomatic initiatives currently underway to seal off sensitive areas from commercial overfishing. The Permanent Commission for the South Pacific, a regional organization under the auspices of the United Nations, currently manages maritime policy there, which makes it an obvious candidate for carrying out such initiatives.
The first priority for any initiatives would be to build a regional consensus around monitoring and deterring Chinese fishing vessels. But strengthening international institutions is also critical to solving this problem. Although China signed an agreement on fish stocks with the United Nations in 1995, it never ratified it, and its distant-water fleet operates well outside of the various frameworks for fishery management it has signed with its neighbors.
Meanwhile, the Agreement on Port State Measures, which entered into force in 2016, is one of the first internationally binding accords that attempts to reduce illegal and unregulated fishing by preventing those suspected of engaging in the activity from landing catches at ports. China is not a signatory, but the agreement aims to bolster the capacity of developing countries to inspect offloaded cargo and identify signs of illegal fishing. Increasing the capacity of its partner countries to monitor, detect, and deter will provide the United States with greater strategic depth and will free up resources to direct elsewhere.
Tightening the security of international supply chains through greater traceability would also be attractive: The United States, Japan, and the European Union constitute a large share of the global seafood market, and they could be more proactive about establishing standards and monitoring to prevent illegal Chinese products from entering supply chains. Because China cares deeply about its international reputation, high-level officials such as the U.S. secretary of state should continue to name and shame Chinese fleets for their environmental devastation and adverse impact on local economies.
And as in other areas of the Chinese economy, the United States must assemble a robust coalition to loudly denounce and take action against Chinese subsidies, which represent more than 20 percent of global fisheries subsidies and have driven the expansion of its fleet. In this effort, U.S. diplomats must become conversant in the highly technocratic dealings of regional fisheries management organizations. The United States still maintains unparalleled convening power and could bring these organizations together in a new forum to challenge China’s fishing practices. Tightening quotas, for instance, would be a logical place to start. Meanwhile, the efforts of nongovernmental organizations and think tanks, especially those using the latest mapping, predictive, and ship-tracking technologies, will remain essential to documenting the full scope of the problem as it evolves.
And finally, there is the military option. To combat China’s recent activity off the Galápagos, on Aug. 7, the Ecuadorian Navy sent a vessel to scout the area, in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard. In the South China Sea, Indonesia has sent F-16s and naval vessels to ward off predatory Chinese fishing fleets. At the moment, Latin American navies are too underfunded to engage in similar deterrence operations. (Chinese trawlers outnumber the total fleet maintained by the navies of Ecuador, Peru, and Chile combined.) They are unable to fully patrol their coastal waters, they lack the air power required to engage in robust aerial monitoring, and the capabilities they do possess are usually reserved for combating maritime drug trafficking.
These facts highlight the importance of the U.S. Coast Guard’s new initiative, announced in September, to mitigate illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing with partner countries such as Ecuador. The Coast Guard’s equipment, experience, and capabilities can guide intelligence-driven enforcement operations based on the latest aerial and satellite imagery. Training exercises should also hone the ability of partner countries to perform midsea boarding and inspection tasks to catch illegal fishing in the act.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by China’s massive fleet should be an ongoing focal point between the United States and its partners in the Western Hemisphere. Healthy fish stocks underpin the food security and livelihoods of communities all over Latin America. The disregard for norms and the flouting of sovereignty by Chinese fishing vessels threatens the stability of Latin American countries that rely on the ocean’s resources for food and economic development. Chinese behavior is also a direct violation of the international, rules-based order. With a concerted effort, the United States can assist with a range of tools to help Latin American countries monitor and confront Chinese fleets, uphold international laws and norms, and keep local communities vibrant.
Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.