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Chinese Fishing Fleets Exploit East Africa, Deplete Resources

A multibillion-dollar global fishing industry, heavily backed by the Chinese government, is driving a surge in illegal activities by Chinese vessels off the coast of East Africa. This exploitation is depleting fishing grounds that local communities rely on, according to a report by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

Impact on local communities

Local fishermen in countries like Mozambique have been particularly affected. ‘Before the Chinese fishing boats came here, we could expect a good catch when we cast our nets, even if we only cast the nets three times,’ one Mozambican fisher told the EJF. ‘Now we have to stay out at sea for a whole day to catch enough fish. This is heartbreaking because these fish are not only for us, but also for our children. They have destroyed our future livelihoods.’

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The decline in fish stocks has forced local fishermen to spend longer hours at sea with diminishing returns, threatening their livelihoods and food security. The environmental and economic damage caused by these fishing practices has led to increased poverty and food insecurity in coastal communities.

Chinese government’s stance

In October 2023, a State Council white paper claimed that China would focus on ‘win-win cooperation, safe, stable, green, and sustainable’ distant-water fishing operations. However, China’s vast fishing fleets, which operate as far away as Latin America, West Africa, and Antarctica, have been adding to the strain on global fish stocks, according to monitoring organisations.

Environmental and economic damage

The EJF report found that Chinese government-backed trawler fleets quickly deplete fish stocks, disrupt breeding cycles, and pollute coastlines with discarded fish deemed not valuable enough to process. This has had a significant impact on countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Madagascar.

Mozambique, one of the poorest countries globally, relies heavily on its coastal resources. Approximately two-thirds of its population lives along the coast and depends on the sea for their food and income. Local fishermen report damaged nets and reduced catches, with one stating, ‘The way Chinese fishing boats operate leaves us with nothing.’

Illegal practices and human rights violations

The EJF report, Tide of Injustice: Exploitation and illegal fishing on Chinese vessels in the Southwest Indian Ocean, documents 86 instances of illegal fishing and human rights violations between 2017 and 2023, half of which involved Chinese vessels. These violations include routine shark finning, the capture and injury of vulnerable marine species, and abuse of crew members.

Shark finning, the practice of cutting off a shark’s fin and discarding the body, is illegal in many countries but remains prevalent on Chinese vessels. ‘Some days we would catch as many as 20 sharks,’ a former Indonesian crew member on a Chinese fishing vessel told the EJF. ‘We would just cut their fins off and throw the rest of the shark back.’

Human rights abuses

Violence and exploitation are rampant aboard these vessels. According to the EJF, 54 percent of interviewees witnessed or experienced physical abuse, and 70 percent reported verbal abuse and intimidation. Additionally, 93 percent of crew members said they were underpaid or had wages unfairly deducted.

Crew members are often forced to take out loans to secure jobs and then have to repay the costs of food, transport, and healthcare. ‘The conditions on these boats are pretty inhumane,’ said Chiu Shao-Chi, EJF’s East Asia Manager. ‘Many fishermen told us that they were basically enslaved.’

Challenges in addressing the issue

The remote nature of fisheries and a lack of transparency make it difficult to identify and prosecute illegal fishing and related human rights abuses. Chinese seafood companies, often state-owned or subsidised, have been operating in the southwest Indian Ocean for several years. In November 2018, Yu Yi Industry Co. Ltd celebrated its first haul of 359 metric tons of fish from waters near Mozambique, as part of China’s Belt and Road global supply chain initiative.

International response and criticism

Chinese state media have pushed back against criticisms, with allegations of ‘unsubstantiated smears.’ In September 2023, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning deflected accusations of illegal fishing by blaming individual skippers.

The United Nations has called for better protection of marine ecosystems to guard against overfishing and pollution. The EJF emphasises the need for improved transparency and stricter regulations to combat illegal fishing and protect human rights in the industry.

Despite international criticism, the Chinese government continues to assert that its fishing operations comply with international laws and contribute to global food security. However, the environmental and social costs of these operations are increasingly coming under scrutiny.

Worsening poverty and food insecurity

The depletion of fish stocks off East Africa has exacerbated food insecurity and poverty. Mozambique loses an estimated $70 million in revenue annually due to illegal fishing, significantly impacting the national economy and coastal livelihoods. According to Selina Robinson, a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Investigation at the University of Winchester, overfishing has led some former fishermen to turn to piracy as a means of survival.

‘Over the past 25 years, overfishing by industrial fleets and widespread illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing have caused a 30 percent decline in subsistence fisheries production in Mozambique,’ Chiu told Radio Free Asia (RFA), citing local government data. ‘Mozambique loses an estimated $70 million in revenue each year due to rampant illegal fishing, which has a significant impact on the national economy and the livelihoods of coastal residents,’ she said.

Broader implications for marine ecosystems

The southwest Indian Ocean, rich in marine biodiversity, supports not only local ecosystems but also the livelihoods of coastal residents. The arrival of state-backed Chinese trawler fleets has disrupted this balance, leading to long-term environmental damage. The indiscriminate fishing practices of these fleets, combined with their disregard for sustainability, threaten the fragile marine ecosystems that many East African communities depend on.

Call for action

As the environmental and economic impacts of illegal fishing continue to grow, urgent action is needed to ensure sustainable fishing practices and protect the livelihoods of coastal communities in East Africa. The EJF’s report underscores the necessity for enhanced monitoring, stricter regulations, and international cooperation to combat illegal fishing and human rights abuses in the fishing industry.

Efforts to address these challenges must include greater transparency in the fishing sector, better enforcement of existing laws, and support for local communities to manage their marine resources sustainably. The international community, including governments, NGOs, and industry stakeholders, must work together to develop and implement solutions that safeguard the future of our oceans and the people who depend on them.

By addressing the root causes of illegal fishing and promoting sustainable practices, we can help preserve marine biodiversity, protect human rights, and ensure that coastal communities can continue to thrive for generations to come.

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