China has the largest illegal fishing operation in the world and is a major poacher in foreign waters from Southeast Asia to Africa and South America. The Chinese subsidize several thousand fishing ships to make this poacher fleet profitable and, at least in the South China Sea and other nearby waters, will send warships (heavily armed “coast guard” vessels (to intimidate local fishing patrol boats to back off. But China has not used their coast guard ships long distances from China (off Africa and South America). In those distant waters subsidized fishing boats will do what they can to protect poachers. These subsidized fishing boats are part of a semi-official naval militia that uses unarmed, but willing. Fishing boats and crews to “interfere” with armed patrol boats (which Chinese ships are poaching) or to block foreign fishing boats from fishing areas China claims for its own exclusive use.
Some other nations (like South Korea and Spain) also have trawlers showing up in areas where a lot of poaching goes on. But the vast majority of these poachers are Chinese. Two of the frequent victims, Indonesia and Argentina, have responded aggressively since 2016 and the Chinese replied by declaring that it was legal for Chinese trawlers to go whatever they wanted in “traditional Chinese fishing areas.” That is a fiction China began using after several embarrassing clashes off Indonesia and Argentina in 2016 and since then the Chinese trawlers have been less aggressive in these distant waters.
In February 2018 there was another clash off Argentina when am Argentine patrol boat caught a Chinese trawler poaching in Argentinian waters. The patrol boat fired warning shots and sought to capture the Chinese trawler before it could reach international waters. Aided by bad weather, turning off its lights and eventually four other Chinese trawlers showing and deliberately coordinating their movements to threaten the patrol boat with collision, the Chinese trawlers got away after eight hours of pursuit. But the patrol boat documented the incident and was able to identify the five trawlers and Argentina has issued an international capture order for the five Chinese trawlers. China has the legal and diplomatic clout to block seizure of these trawlers but that is expensive and embarrassing. In the meantime hundreds of Chinese trawlers, and smaller numbers of South Korean and Spanish ones assemble regularly to fish at the edge of Argentinian controlled waters and take unsustainable quantities of fish, squid and shrimp. This overfishing will eventually deplete the abundant resources long available off the southeast coast of Argentina.
The trawlers involved in these incidents are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities on board 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 13) and there are currently over 2,500 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing many of the ocean going fishing boats. Those subsidies have since been withdrawn but meanwhile the number of larger (than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters.
A Chinese trawler sunk off Argentina in 2016 by a patrol boat was 66 meters long and was in the company of similar Chinese vessels, which picked up most (23) of the crew from the sunk trawler and fled the area. Later a Spanish trawler was seized and released after the owner paid a million dollar fine. In 2017 at least six Chinese trawlers were seized off South America (especially by Ecuador) and Africa and had to pay large fines to get the crews and trawlers cut loose. Apparently the Chinese trawlers that get captured far from China have to absorb most or all of the fines, to encourage Chinese trawlers to try harder to avoid detection and capture.
That doesn’t work with Indonesia which, since 2016, has been unofficially, but very visibly, at war with foreign trawlers caught engaging in illegal fishing. This poaching has been going on with increasing frequency since the 1990s and Indonesia was a frequent victim because it was relatively close to China. Many of the nation’s being victimized compared notes, did the math and noted that the most frequent offenders are Chinese ships. 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. But some nations are not just complaining, they 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 ships used by poachers. 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 keeps 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. In desperation Chinese declared the fishing areas poached as “traditional Chinese fishing areas” and not subject to modern legalities about “Economic Zones.” No one supported Chinese “traditional fishing areas” defense, nor did international law.
The most frequent site for Chinese poaching off Indonesia is near the Natuna Islands. These are 3,000 kilometers from China and within the Indonesian EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the EEZ of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. Meanwhile China began developing more forceful methods for supporting its poaching fleet.
Since 2015 it has become public knowledge that Chinese commercial ships, particularly freighters and ocean-going fishing ships, are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. The commercial ships are expected to collect intelligence and even risk damage and injuries by using their ships to block the movement of foreign ships (including warships). In return the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance if Chinese commercial ships get in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should when stealing fish is involved. And it’s not just Indonesia. On March 15th 2016 an Argentinian coast guard ship sank a Chinese trawler that was illegally fishing in Argentinian waters. The coast guard 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 will be quietly compensated by China.
This sort of illegal fishing is a worldwide problem and Chinese trawlers are apparently the biggest offenders because these crimes are government organized and coordinated. In waters closer to China there will often be Chinese warships near areas where Chinese trawlers fish illegally. This sometimes becomes a problem as Chinese warships will often try to rescue Chinese trawlers seized for illegal fishing. This doesn’t always work but it sets a scary precedent.
Chinese efforts to justify poaching with the “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” excuse often backfires. In the case of Argentina the traditional fishing grounds” angle at is absurd and when caught the Chinese do nothing because most South American nations have an illegal fishing problems and would unite in opposition to Chinese bullying. Any Chinese economic threats could backfire because Chinese firms are currently investing a lot money in South America and don’t want those investment threatened because of widespread local anger over Chinese poachers. Meanwhile the poachers keep at it, apparently with assurances that the Chinese government will back them up. So far the Chinese government has done just that.