China Is Fishing for Trouble at Sea

The Trump administration is taking on China’s illegal catch—and Biden should do the same.

By Blake Herzinger, a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer.
Fishing vessels carrying slogans and Chinese national flags
Fishing vessels carrying slogans and Chinese national flags sail in formation through Victoria Harbor during China's National Day in Hong Kong on Oct. 1. May James/AFP via Getty Images

The People’s Republic of China leads the world in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF). With a fishing fleet that numbers up to 800,000 boats by some estimates, China depleted its own domestic fisheries long ago. Through generous subsidies and government direction, the Chinese Communist Party has subsequently incentivized part of its fleet to travel further afield to satisfy both China’s domestic consumption and the international market. Despite this, China has avoided any tangible consequences for its actions, while smaller states are strong-armed into compliance with international standards and maritime law. With a growing number of fishing-related policy announcements, it appears that the United States is preparing the groundwork for launching a new salvo in the U.S.-China competition as the time runs out for President Donald Trump’s administration.

Globally, economic losses from illegal fishing are difficult to quantify, but there is little disagreement that the overall economic loss totals tens of billions of dollars yearly, encompassing lost tax revenue, onshore fishing industry jobs, and depletion of food supplies. Much of that illegal catch comes from the exclusive economic zones of states such as Guinea, the Philippines, and North Korea that are impoverished and cannot exercise sufficient control of their maritime areas—the same states that Chinese fishermen often end up targeting. Fishery collapse due to overfishing in those areas poses a very real risk of food insecurity for millions in the developing world.

How does this affect the United States? Past studies estimate that up to one-third of the wild-caught seafood imported into the United States was illegally harvested, in violation of the Lacey Act (1990). The Lacey Act was the United States’ first federal law signed to protect wildlife and prohibits the import or export of any animal or plant products taken by illegal means. Evading regulation leads to the degradation of the global food supply as well as environmental damage in many cases. But at the center of Trump’s thrust is likely to be the negative impact on the American economy and detrimental effects on the American fishing industry. It may seem counterintuitive that illegal fishing outside American waters hurts the United States. However, fish do not observe national maritime boundaries. Migratory fish are some of the most economically valuable and are thus extensively targeted. As illegal catch increases, there are fewer fish reproducing each year and the often-destructive practices employed by illegal fishing organizations wreak havoc on the ocean ecosystem. Thus, widespread illegal fishing creates a cycle of destruction that results in fewer fish growing to maturity and shrinking numbers of fish available for harvest by American fishermen. Illegal products entering the U.S. marketplace also disadvantage American producers whose bottom lines reflect the costs of adherence to international law and domestic regulation.

The lack of consequences in China’s case is not for a lack of available measures. The European Union implemented an indirect enforcement system in 2010 that has proven effective in prompting sweeping changes in many states guilt of illegal fishing practices, but that system has only been used against less powerful countries that could not challenge the Europeans. Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have all been recipients of yellow or red cards while China has escaped all censure, despite its extensive, documented pattern of misbehavior and illegal activities.

In 2020, the Trump administration produced several policies that set the stage for a head-on confrontation with the world’s most infamous perpetrator of fisheries crime. In May, Trump issued an executive order, “Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth.” At first blush, the order is very much in line with the “America First” credo espoused by the present administration, clearing perceived bureaucratic hurdles to American industries and promoting American businesses. However, close to the top is a mandate for the secretary of commerce and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to explore ways to implement the United Nations Agreement on Port State Measures “to prevent, deter, and eliminate IUUF.”

Following the issuance of that order, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a press statement in response to the enormous Chinese fishing fleet that logged 73,000 hours of fishing along Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone from July to August. He pointed out China’s subsidization of the world’s largest commercial fishing fleet as well as its widely-accepted reputation for illegal practices, notably calling for the international community to stand in opposition to China’s disregard for the rule of law and poor environmental stewardship.

In September, the U.S. Coast Guard released its own IUUF Strategic Outlook, naming illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing as the “leading global maritime security threat.” Among its three lines of effort is the call to “Counter Predatory and Irresponsible State Behavior.” China is the only country that receives specific attention in the report, which highlights its violations of sovereignty and international law as well as calls for it to exercise appropriate responsibility as a flag state.

Unfortunately, this push comes in what appears to be the last year of this administration, creating the potential for the initiative to lose inertia during the transition of power. While it’s fair to expect a good deal of change in a potential Biden administration, holding China to account for its blatant abuse of the world’s common food supply is worth retaining.

The incoming administration should make a concerted effort to operationalize these policy actions. For instance, the corporations and individuals involved with China’s massive distant water fishing fleet are prime candidates for targeted sanctions. Unraveling the networks of ownership may be difficult, but it is not impossible. Commercially available satellite data offers an affordable, accessible supply of evidence to support the case, as evidenced by campaigns by organizations like Global Fishing Watch and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative to highlight malign activities using publicly available imagery. While the U.S. government certainly does not lack for sophisticated space-based imagery, commercial solutions circumvent slow dissemination processes and entirely avoid issues of classification that might hamper official government efforts. Additionally, shipbuilders, exporters, fish processing, and equipment manufacturers supporting China’s distant water fishing fleet should all be considered within the realm of possibility for sanction.

The flag state regime offers another opportunity. According to international law, all merchant vessels must be registered in a state of the owner’s choice. The state where the ship is registered is known as the flag state, and the ship assumes the nationality of the flag under which it sails. The flag state is responsible for ensuring that their vessels adhere to international law. Some states have offered their flag with the understanding that requirements and regulation are relaxed and are known as “flags of convenience.”

The majority of Chinese distant water fishing vessels are Chinese-flagged, but the US and its allies could, and should, put pressure on other flag states to either enforce international law or de-list those Chinese ships committing violations under their respective flags. States like Panama and Fiji may offer flags of convenience but can still be held to account for the behavior of ships operating under their flag. The Trump administration’s haphazard approach to diplomacy has left the United States ill-equipped to bring an effective case against China at the United Nations for violations committed under its flag. However, a Biden administration might find action under the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an attractive and available avenue for mobilizing multilateral support.

Biden’s incoming team should also plan to encourage the European Union to exercise its own mechanism of enforcement by issuing a yellow card notice to China. With China ranking as the largest country of origin for fishery products consumed in the EU, and first in the world for total trade in fisheries and aquaculture, the EU can’t turn a blind eye to its illegal practices. As Biden’s team seeks to rebuild bridges with Europe during its first months in office, this issue should be prioritized for discussion.

Finally, Biden’s administration should fully support increased funding of the U.S. Coast Guard to enable its execution of the other lines of effort in its IUUF strategy: namely, enabling global fishing enforcement and mobilizing multilateral efforts to combat illegal practices. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz has publicly warned the U.S. congress that his organization is under-resourced for even its current set of missions, thus necessitating a larger conversation about the coast guard budget if a global IUUF campaign is going to be successful.

Fishing may not strike many as an issue worthy of immediate concern to an incoming Biden administration confronting not only a dynamic international landscape and global pandemic, but tumult at home as well. However, the prospect of collapse for a primary source of protein for more than 10 percent of the world’s population is worthy of attention. The new administration must resist the urge to throw out all Trump-era policies in a return to the status quo. It may seem improbable, but by utilizing the elements of policy put into place during the last year of Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration could positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions across the globe, as well as confront illegal Chinese activity within the framework of international law.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger

Tag: China