Sea Transportation: China’s Pirate Trawler Fleet


December 19, 2022: China’s huge ocean-going fishing fleet sustains itself by massive poaching of fishing grounds worldwide. The operation is worldwide and a major threat to species at risk of population collapse because of overfishing. Officially China, the largest customer for this aquatic bounty, agrees that long-term loss of overfished species is a bad thing. Yet China created its poaching fleet and quietly provides support for these illegal operations.

The United States proposed the expansion of existing seagoing international policing operations to include large scale fish poaching. This maritime peacekeeping has worked against piracy and smuggling off Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and near the Straits of Malacca. The problem with applying this to Chinese state-supported poaching is that the culprits are a moving target that preys on vulnerable fishing areas worldwide. The Chinese poachers operate in up to a dozen poaching flotillas, each with as large as several hundred trawlers. China uses its global space-based ocean monitoring network to guide the poachers to vulnerable areas, and then warn them when the local coast guard has been alerted and is approaching the poachers.

This state-sponsored poaching operation does not exist officially, but it is real and worldwide. At the beginning of 2022 China had about 3,000 ocean-going fishing trawlers operational. China does not officially reveal much about its growing fishing fleet but more and more foreign countries, as far away as South America, report hundreds of Chinese trawlers showing up just outside, or are caught inside, their maritime EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Waters 360 kilometers from a coast are considered the EEZ of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there or extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. Chinese violations of foreign EEZ areas to obtain oil and gas get a lot of media attention but these activities are currently restricted to the South China Sea. The Chinese fishery poaching, often inside foreign EEZs, gets less notice but is a growing threat to fishing stocks worldwide. China needs these illegal catches to justify the subsidies it has provided to get more Chinese to enter the trawler business and stick with it.

China does not officially approve of this poaching and, despite complaints from nations victimized by it, does little to halt the poaching. China provides enormous, often unreported, subsidies to its fishing fleet because newly affluent Chinese want more seafood and the government seems reluctant to restrict the amount its fishing fleet is bringing in. China officially condemns poaching and supports international agreements that limit what can be taken of species that are in danger of population collapse if overfished, particularly in becoming too small to rebuild while moving towards extinction. Yet Chinese poaching grows, in part because the Chinese never imposed any system of regulation on the thousands of ocean-going trawlers its subsidies have created.

The trawlers involved are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities onboard to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30. The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 when there were only 13. Now there are 3,000 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean-going fishing boats. Those subsidies have since been withdrawn but meanwhile, the number of larger (more than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in distant waters.

These trawlers must bring back lots of fish to stay in business and trawler captains know that their own government is the least of their worries when it comes to poaching. Poaching tactics vary. Well-guarded EEZs will often report hundreds of Chinese trawlers suddenly showing up just outside the EEZ and venturing into the EEZ in large numbers when the opportunity presents itself. Many vulnerable and valuable fisheries are not inside any EEZ, like krill in Antarctic waters. The tiny krill are at the bottom of the food chain but provide sustenance for many larger species, including whales. China admits it is taking more and more krill but says that it will not take quantities that will cause krill populations in any area to collapse. Despite the assurances Chinese trawlers in Antarctic waters appear to take more and more krill without any restrictions from their own government or the need for preventing population collapse.

Many Chinese freighters and ocean-going fishing ships are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from Chinese navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. Compliance is enforced by threats to withhold subsidies or prosecution. These commercial fishing ships are expected to collect intelligence and even risk damage and injuries by blocking the movement of foreign ships, including warships. In return, the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance of Chinese commercial ships in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should when stealing fish is involved.

This sort of illegal fishing is a worldwide problem. In waters closer to China, Chinese warships will often try to rescue Chinese trawlers seized for illegal fishing. This doesn’t always work but it sets a scary precedent. This has happened several times in Indonesian waters, even in areas where China does not dispute ownership. China justifies its armed intervention because the Chinese trawlers were in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”

Argentina thought it had solved its problems with Chinese poachers in 2016 when an Argentinian coast guard ship sank a Chinese trawler that was illegally fishing in coastal waters. As the trawler sank the Argentines rescued five of the crew, including the captain and arrested them. China complained but did nothing else. In fact, within weeks China publicly reaffirmed its growing economic and diplomatic ties with Argentina. Meanwhile, the owners of the lost fishing trawler were quietly compensated by China.

The Chinese did not abandon the lucrative Argentinian fishing ground after 2016 but instead planned a much larger and stealthier poaching effort. An international anti-poaching organization detected the Chinese stealth poaching by various means, the most important one involved collecting data on the location of Chinese fishing ships that turn off their mandatory AIS transponders. AIS reveals ship location to other ships, shipping companies and anyone else willing to collect this data from websites that provide it openly. A suspicious pattern was discovered involving over 800 Chinese trawlers that were scouring the waters within 36 kilometers of the Argentinian EEZ and fishing grounds that contained one of the largest concentrations of shortfin squid in the world. Squid is particularly popular in China and the Chinese trawlers were apparently seeking as much, which was not much, of the squid as they could. This was a minor bonanza for Chinese trawlers but for Argentinian fishing boats these rare squid were worth over half a billion dollars a year. Offshore fishing is big business in Argentina and represents 3.5 percent of GDP.

The Chinese were poaching large quantities of Argentinian seafood by operating close to Argentinian waters and noting the location of Argentine fishing boats and coast guard vessels and, when the opportunity presented itself, turning off their transponders and moving into Argentine waters at night to grab all they could before getting back to international waters before dawn or any suspicious Argentine coast guard ship got too close. The transponder use analysis showed that between 2017 and 2021 there were over 6,000 instances when Chinese trawlers near Argentina went dark for a total of 600,000 hours. During this period Chinese trawlers spent 900,000 hours fishing close enough to Argentine waters to regularly turn off their transponders and move into more lucrative Argentine waters, grab what they could and get out undetected. China denies doing any such thing and knows that if just turning off the transponder doesn’t work anymore, they have inexpensive (and illegal) GPS spoofing devices that can cause the AIS transponder to report a trawler is still in international waters while it is in Argentine waters poaching. China has its own reasons for condoning the large-scale poaching form of piracy’ their trawlers are also part of the naval militia, which is often called out to passively defend illegal Chinese claims to the South China Sea. Some wealthier nations are trying to help. Japan helped upgrade the Indonesian coast guard so that it could deal with aggressive Chinese illegal fishing near the Indonesian coast.

With this improved detection ability, Indonesia was able to send in small warships when Chinese poachers are escorted by armed Chinese coast guard ships. This last occurred at the end of 2019 when dozens of Chinese fishing ships, escorted by Chinese coast guard vessels entered Indonesian waters to fish illegally. It was this brazen invasion that caused Indonesia to ask Japan for some help and the Japanese agreed.

Since about 2014 China and Indonesia have been unofficially, but very visibly, at war with each other over illegal fishing. Many of the victims did the math and noted that the most frequent offenders are Chinese. These are either Chinese owned fishing ships or ships from other countries that register themselves as Chinese to gain a measure of immunity from being stopped or punished by the nations being plundered. While most nations just complained, others are fighting back.

In the case of Indonesia, the fighting back consists of shooting at poachers and, since 2014, destroying (via explosives or burning) over 200 poacher ships. Indonesia calculates that this poaching costs Indonesia over $2 billion a year and that China’s worldwide poaching operation brings in over $20 billion a year. Since China does not officially admit it is organizing and controlling this, and the Indonesians are using large warships with orders to fire on any poacher caught and refusing to surrender, the Chinese are taking most of the losses off Indonesia. For a while, China sent warships to accompany flotillas (often ten or more ocean-going fishing ships) and protect the poachers if caught and keep the police or coast guard boats busy while the poachers escaped. But Indonesia responded by sending out warships (corvettes and frigates) with orders to fire on any foreign warships caught with the poachers. China stopped sending warships but the poachers kept on coming and Indonesia kept capturing and prosecuting the crews. The poacher ships are often destroyed as media events, with local news being allowed to capture and broadcast videos of the fires and explosions.

The experience off Indonesia led other informal trawler fleets, especially those operating off South America or East Africa to develop new tactics that rely more on stealth than force. China has been actively poaching in all these foreign EEZs, especially off South America where several nations have stocks of rare and exotic species that Chinese diners will pay a premium for.

China openly supports its trawlers with information of who (schools of fish or local patrol boats) is operating in these distant EEZ fisheries. China has lots of satellites and ELINT (electronic intelligence) ships operating off distant shores, always unannounced. If these Chinese methods risk causing a collapse of fishing stocks, China will plead ignorance. That may be technically true but it is willful ignorance backed by hefty financial incentives for Chinese trawlers to take all they can, but any means necessary. An international naval patrol to deal with this has not happened because China and Russia are able to block proposals in the UN while Chinese threats of economic retaliation discourage many nations.




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