That Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based NGO, this week published a report on the destructive, largely unregulated and often illegal operations of China’s vast deep-sea fishing fleet.
A particularly troubling chapter of the report looked at the damaging impact of Chinese fisheries on West African countries, where entire coastal communities are teetering on the brink of economic collapse thanks to China’s predatory practices.
The report entitled The Ever-Widening Net: mapping the extent, nature and corporate structures of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by China’s flood fleet, accused China of building a huge fleet to fish outside of China’s own depleted waters.
This Chinese Deep Sea Fleet (CDWF) employs “destructive practices such as bottom trawling and the use of forced, bonded and slave labor and smuggled crews” to steal vast fishing harvests from communities along the African coast.
The EFJ blamed “a lack of transparency and opacity in seafood supply chains, limited monitoring, inspection and surveillance capacity, poor governance and corruption” for allowing these practices to continue.
The report took a dim view of deep-sea fleets in general, but singled out China for its “size and global reach” and penchant for overfishing in vulnerable regions like the African coast.
The most alarming case study for China’s practices was Ghana, where Chinese industrial fisheries have depleted stocks so badly that Ghanaian fishermen come home with empty boats and have little choice but to buy back their own local fish from Chinese corporations. This situation is so common that Ghanaians have a word for it: Saiko.
China has invaded Ghana so aggressively that EJF estimates nearly 90 percent of the local trawler fleet is now controlled by Chinese companies operating through Ghanaian front companies. Ghana’s coastal canoe fishermen can hardly hope to compete with these trawlers; According to the EJF, over 70 percent of local fishermen say their living conditions have deteriorated in the past five years, and half of them said they “did not have enough food in the last year”.
The report revealed that 70 percent of canoe fishermen said their gear had been damaged by close encounters with the trawlers. Some say they were evicted from the trawlers with “threats and abuse.”
The report accused Chinese trawlers of deliberately targeting small fish populations near shore and wiping them out by catching juvenile fish before they have a chance to breed. This leaves local communities with little choice but to get involved Saiko Trade in frozen fish harvested by the Chinese in deeper waters where canoes cannot reach.
The impact of these activities on coastal communities is catastrophic. EJF found that Ghanaian women, who normally do the shore-end canoe fishing business, are turning to prostitution in increasing numbers as fishermen come home empty-handed.
The report noted that other human rights abuses by the CDWF “are becoming evident” as the fleet comes under increased international scrutiny. In May 2021, US Customs and Border Protection banned imports from China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing company for allegedly abusing Indonesian migrant workers on board its ships.
EJF interviewed Indonesian crew members who reported “physical abuse, intimidation and threats, withholding and deductions from wages, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime”.
Aboard a particularly notorious Chinese ship, the Indonesian crew reported that they shared a toilet with 22 men, had their passports confiscated, and were forced to “eat fish otherwise used for bait” that had been “poorly treated.” Saltwater” was hunted.
The Indonesians also said the Chinese crew beat them during a hellish voyage that lasted 13 months because of the ship’s ability to tranship its catch and receive supplies at sea. Four of the Indonesian crew of that ship died, one of them on board the ship, after the captain refused to return to port for medical care.
Ghanaians working on Chinese ships reported similar abuses, along with “shabby” housing, “food of very little nutritional value” and “hardly drinkable water” that often caused illness.
“Illegal fishing and overcapacity in Ghana’s trawling sector are having a disastrous impact on coastal communities across the country,” said EJF CEO Max Schmid Voice of America News (VOA) on Thursday.
The growing network concluded by asking the Chinese government to better monitor the activities of its deep-sea fleet, make ship ownership more transparent and cooperate with international organizations on environmental and human rights issues. As VOA has indicated, these pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears, as Chinese officials and state media adamantly deny any sort of problem with its deep-sea fleet or industrial fishing practices.
The EFJ report also offered some advice to local governments and national authorities, including a plethora of proposals to do away with the paperwork China has built over its fishing fleet, enforce licensing laws more tightly and enact regulations against the use of destructive fishing gear. A system was also recommended that would allow foreign and immigrant CDWF crew members to report abuses securely and anonymously.