China is trying to rein in its vessels illegally depleting fish stocks in West Africa

Fishing off West Africa’s coast can be fraught.
Fishing off West Africa’s coast can be fraught.
Image: Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang
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China is increasingly cracking down on vessels from its country that are engaged in illegal fishing activities in West Africa. It’s a move environmental groups say is indicative of increased intolerance towards illicit practices in high seas and an effort to improve its image globally.

Since 2016, the country has canceled subsidies worth €90 million ($111.6 million) for 264 vessels caught undertaking illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, according to non-profit Greenpeace. Three of the 78 companies that owned these vessels had their distant water fishing licenses revoked, while 15 company owners and captains were blacklisted.

In late February, the ministry of agriculture also halted the pelagic fishing license of Lian Run, a major Chinese company accused of systematic pillaging of West African fisheries on a huge scale. All of the company’s distant water fishing operations, involving about 30 vessels, were also stopped. Last year, two of the company’s trawlers—Lian Run 34 and 47—were caught operating off the coast of Guinea with illegal fishing nets and in possession of shark fins without the body, a practice prohibited under Guinean law.

China also halted the operations of Fuzhou Honglong fisheries companies, months after the company was caught in the Galapagos Marine Reserve transporting thousands of dead shark carcasses.

The latest disciplinary measures meted against Chinese companies for fishing infractions comes after the country amended its fisheries law last year, which dishes out harsh measures in dealing with the increased management difficulties brought about by surging industrial capacity. In West Africa alone, China is the largest fishing power with more than 500 Chinese industrial fishing fleets in seas once dominated by Russian and European operations. Environmentalists say stocks are being depleted in the rich waters by IUU, and African governments, hamstrung by lack of coordination, poor legislation, besides budget and technology constraints, are losing over $2 billion annually. The violations are also becoming so severe they are threatening the livelihood of fishermen and food security in the region.

Pavel Klinckhamers, who monitors West African oceans for Greenpeace, says China, increasingly aware of this, wants to show the world that it is “serious” about taking steps to stop the breaches conducted by its vessels. “We think that China is becoming more and more cautious about their image in foreign countries,” he said.

However, it’s not just the Chinese who are depleting West African seas. Last year, the watchdog group Oceana revealed European states including Portugal, Italy, and Greece had authorized unlawful fishing activities off the coast of Africa in contravention of common regional laws and policies. And this month, the group also tracked a Spanish commercial vessel that switched off its mandatory location-identifying system while it fished in the national waters of at least five African countries.

A Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to turn off its automatic identification systems signal consistently over a seven-month period.
A Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to turn off its automatic identification systems signal consistently over a seven-month period.
Image: Oceana