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Chinese fishing fleets in Indian Ocean accused of abuses

Yuchen Li in Taipei | Chia-Chun Yeh in Taipei
May 4, 2024

A recent investigation has revealed evidence that China's distant-water fishing fleet, the world's biggest in scale, commits environmental and labor abuses in the southwest Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa.

A rusted China-flagged boat
Chinese distant-water fishing vessels, like this one seen near the Galapagos Islands, have drawn scrutiny around the worldImage: Peter Hammarstedt/Sea Shepherd via AP/picture alliance

"There was no such word as 'rest' on Chinese fishing vessels," explained a former crew member to a group of investigators from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based NGO. "If there were a lot of fish, the work could be up to 22 hours long."

The testimony was part of a recently released report by the EJF accusing China's fishing fleets of environmental and human rights abuses in the southwestern Indian Ocean. 

As a leading fishing nation, China's distant water fishing (DWF) industry is the world's largest in both catch volume and fleet size. And according to the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Index, China ranks as the worst offender among 152 countries worldwide.

The EJF report provides the first comprehensive investigation of Chinese fishing activities off the East African coast. 

China's DWF fleet has mainly faced scrutiny for illegal activities in Latin America and West Africa. However, the EJF report provides the first comprehensive investigation of Chinese fishing activities off the East African coast.

Chinese DWF vessels rely heavily on recruiting foreign fishermen, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Chinese DWF vessels rely heavily on recruiting foreign fishermen, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.Image: Environmental Justice Foundation


China's 'systematic' illegal fishing

While China is not solely responsible for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the region, it is seen as one of the major culprits. East African countries, such as Madagascar and Mozambique, are among the hardest hit. 

Callum Nolan, a senior researcher at the EJF who led much of the study, told DW that "there's real cause for concern" as the Chinese fleet's illegal fishing activity is "systematic."

"This isn't a handful of bad actors or captains. What we're seeing is a fleet-wide issue on the Chinese distant-water fleet," he said. 

The report comes as China is developing fishery infrastructure in cooperation with East African coastal countries and sending fleets out to fishing grounds in the southwest Indian Ocean.

The EJF interviewed 44 fishermen who had worked on China's fleet in the Indian Ocean, the third-largest of the world's five oceanic divisions.

When quizzed about illegal activities aboard Chinese boats, 80% of them had reported shark finning — the act of removing fins from sharks and discarding the rest of the shark back into the ocean — and 59% reported the deliberate capture and/or injury of vulnerable marine megafauna, including manta rays, dolphins and sharks.

"The sharks were caught. They only took the fins and threw the bodies away," a fisherman told the EJF in a video interview.

Small fishing boats off the coast of Kenya
Small-scale fishermen in small skiffs are vulnerable to larger Chinese trawlersImage: Wang Guansen/Xinhua/picture alliance

Another common illegal behavior is entering a fishing zone reserved only for local fishers, Nolan said.

He said Chinese trawlers often come into the zone at night, which has led to collisions between small skiffs and industrial vessels. 

"That creates huge economic problems for local people," Nolan pointed out, adding that these fishers may have to suspend their work for weeks and months to repair the damage to their skiffs.

Forced to eat 'rotten' food and drink distilled seawater

Chinese DWF vessels rely heavily on recruiting foreign fishermen, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.  

Dios Lumban Gaol, a coordinator at Indonesian migrant workers union SBMI, told DW that the EJF report vividly portrays exploitation, violence and harsh working conditions faced by Indonesian crew members on Chinese-flagged ships, a situation "which continues today."

Of 44 crew members interviewed by EJF, all of them reported abusive working and living conditions, 96% excessive overtime and 55% physical violence. 

Between 2017 and 2023, four deaths were reported by interviewees on board Chinese tuna longliners.

Gaol said there have been reports of Indonesian crew members on Chinese vessels being provided with poorly distilled seawater to drink and expired, canned, rotten foods for meals.  

A protest sign reading 'stop IUU fishing'
Indonesians protested illegal and unregulated fishing practices in 2020 in front of China's embassy in JakartaImage: Dasril Roszandi/NurPhoto/picture alliance

On top of that, interviewees reported that Chinese captains or crew members were provided with mineral water, while Indonesians were only given distilled seawater.

"Ironically, despite catching high-value fish […] which are fresh and typically consumed by affluent international communities, the crew members face these dire living and food conditions aboard Chinese-flagged vessels," Gaol said. 

China widens its net in the Indian Ocean

The EJF report also mentioned that via China's global infrastructure investment scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its fishing fleet has been given more access to the resources of East African countries receiving BRI investments that may "feel obligated" to cooperate.

Since the BRI's launch in 2013, 52 African countries have joined, which has helped China deepen its footprint in Africa by constructing roads, rail lines and ports.

Meanwhile, China's "nearly unparalleled" influence in the United Nations also plays a role in holding back criticism of China's activities in Africa, said Elizabeth Freund Larus, adjunct senior fellow at Pacific Forum, a US-based foreign policy think tank.

"The BRI literally buys China a lot of compliance," she said, indicating that member countries "are reticent or hesitant to criticize China" and would likely "carry the water" for the country. "So, no one should expect that the UN is going to take on this issue in any meaningful way."

Besides, it's challenging to scrutinize activities aboard remote Chinese vessels, and China's DWF industry in general usually lacks transparency, said Nolan.

For example, flags flown by vessels may not accurately represent their true ownership and onboard observers may be bribed or threatened. 

China denies any wrongdoing

The Chinese government has repeatedly denied any mismanagement in response to the accusations of illegal and unregulated fishing.

A 2023 government white paper on the development of distant-water fisheries said China holds a "zero tolerance" attitude toward illegal fishing and has "the world's strictest management measures and regulations" on DWF fleets. 

China also claimed in the paper that it has made "notable progress" on critical issues and in priority areas by introducing policies such as closed seasons, a total allowable catch and regular company assessment. 

A list of Chinese firms was also included in EJF's report, including "Shandong Zhonglu" and the "Zhejiang Ocean Family." 

Their tuna fishing fleets have been accused of being the top offenders of illegal and unregulated fishing or human rights abuse cases in the southwest Indian Ocean as of 2023.  

DW reached out to the firms for comment.

Shandong Zhonglu said it is currently verifying the relevant issues mentioned in the EJF report.

Zhejiang Ocean Family said it has launched an internal investigation, but said it found the accusations in the report lacking "factual basis and rigor." 

New boats, empty nets

DW correspondents Kate Hairsine and Levie Mulia Wardana contributed to the report 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn