In the past decade, Chinese fishing vessels have aggressively expanded their activities to the waters of other nations so as to catch enough fish to meet the demand of the billion-plus population in China. In the Persian Gulf, Chinese fishing trawlers are apparently cleaning out fish resources, triggering concerns among local fishermen and environmentalists.
The Chinese trawler problem
Chinese vessels employ the trawling method to catch fish in Iranian waters. In trawling, a fishing net is pulled through the water to catch as many fish as possible. The vessels that are used for this purpose are referred to as trawlers. According to Iranian officials, these Chinese fishing trawlers were operating under a long-term lease by Iranian companies and are only allowed to fish at a depth of 200 meters (656 feet) in waters 12 miles beyond Iran’s territorial waters.
However, what actually happens is a different story, according to farmers’ representative Khalilollah Derakhshan. “Fishing by trawling method sweeps out the seafloor in the south, and annihilates its resources… One of the Chinese vessels caught approximately [US]$21.4 million of “mish mahi” (salmon-bass or stone bass) overnight, which is equal to the value of the trawler… The activity of Chinese trawlers has wiped out 1,500 fish-related jobs in Iran, and Iranian fishermen are currently forced to negotiate with Somali pirates, paying them ten thousand dollars per fishing boat to fish in African waters for a limited period,” he said to a local daily, according to Radio Farda.
In June this year, the International Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) Network for Fisheries-related Activities noted that several Iranian vessels were engaged in illegal shipping off the coast of Somalia. Back in 2018, a news agency from the UAE reported that almost 85 percent of principal fish species in the Persian Gulf saw a significant reduction in their population, almost becoming scarce. Some concerned Iranian fishermen complained about the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in their country’s waters, only to watch authorities turn a blind eye toward them. There have also been incidents when the Chinese vessels attacked them with distress flares and water cannons to prevent the Iranian fishermen from fishing in the area.
Local media estimate that small-scale fishermen have seen their yield fall by around 50 percent in the past 5 years while industrial fishing operations saw yields decline by 75 percent. The Chinese vessels have a competitive advantage over Iranian vessels since they are often equipped with sonar systems that can easily identify areas in the sea teeming with fish.
The Iranian fishermen cease their fishing activities at certain times of the year to allow the fish to reproduce so as to maintain the natural balance in the seas. However, the Chinese trawlers do not observe such customs and indiscriminately catch fish, thus harming the marine ecosystem.
China’s illegal fishing activities have attracted criticism from the U.S. government as well. In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized China for its “predatory fishing practices” that end up violating the rights, jurisdiction, and sovereignty of coastal states. China has the world’s largest fishing fleet. Even though Beijing claims that it only sends about 2,600 vessels to fish internationally, experts point out that this number might well be around 17,000. In comparison, the U.S. only sends 300 ships to international waters.
Recently, around 300 Chinese fishing vessels were spotted to be operating in international waters off the coast of Peru and Ecuador. The Ecuadorian commander of naval operations, Rear Admiral Daniel Ginez, noted that such high levels of fishing activity might pose a threat to certain fish species. In 2018, these two South American nations harvested 4.5 million metric tons of fish, which is almost the same as what the U.S. caught that year, but was only 25 percent of the fish China caught during that period.