The Chinese Invasion of Global Fish Markets

Last month, President Joe Biden signed a national security memorandum to combat the shadow war between China’s illegal fishing fleets and law-abiding fishermen. While the president’s memorandum is a step in the right direction to counter China- it’s not enough.

China’s illegal fishing fleets are far larger than small fishing boats operating off the coast of Africa. Instead, China’s illegal fishing flotillas are weaponized tools used to devastate the fishing economies of other countries on a massive scale.

Illegal fishing violates both national and international fishing regulations and has recently replaced piracy as the U.S. Coast Guard’s No. 1 threat to global maritime security.

Japanese Coast Guard inspects a group of Chinese fishing trawlers

In the Great Power Competition between the U.S. and China, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing has become another tool China uses to turn the tide of battle.

 Unlike illegal fishing elsewhere, China’s far-reaching fishing fleets are kept out at sea for longer than other vessels and are consistently supplied with oil tankers and fish-processing ships to continue operations for years at a time. 

IUU fishing is another arm of China’s grey-zone tactics, which China uses to advance its goals peacefully without direct conflict.

Illegal fishing threatens ocean fish quantities and takes money out of the pockets of law-abiding fishermen, and puts U.S. fish markets at a financial disadvantage.

Data from Breaching The Blue

China is the largest user of IUU fishing, surpassing the entire world in the number of fish its fisherman illegally catches each year.

China’s Maritime Militia, consisting of thousands of small fishing trawlers, is routinely sent to disputed regions in the South China Sea to harass fishermen and illegally fish outside of Chinese waters.

China’s fishing fleets operate quietly. For example, a small group of Chinese fishing boats will begin fishing in an area, and once gone unnoticed, hundreds of additional trawlers will follow to start fishing in the area.

Once these illegal fishing boats are noticed, Chinese Coast Guard cutters will arrive to defend the fishermen from being removed and even ram or sink opposing ships.

Chinese Maritime Militia sips being shadowed by a CCG Cutter

Chinese fishermen routinely violate the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of U.S. allies in the South China Sea, and it’s not just for the fish.

China wants to increase its dominance in the South China Sea due to its significant trade importance and its vast oil reserves. The Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan have increased their law enforcement presence in the region to fight China’s tactics, but it isn’t enough to stop the illegal fishing altogether.

China’s efforts extend far past Asia. From Africa to the Caribbean, Chinese fishing fleets are found exploiting fish reserves all around the globe.

In South America, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are the target of China’s far-distance squid fishing fleets. These fleets illegally practice tactics that prevent law enforcement from identifying them as Chinese ships and operate directly outside Ecuador’s EEZ. These Chinese fleets are actively reducing fish supplies for local fishermen and limiting response options for Ecuador’s navy.

A Chinese Squid Jigger being monitored by a Chilean Navy patrol vessel

With thousands of fishing boats at sea across the world, finding Chinese illegal fishing fleets is a challenge that the U.S. and its allies currently face.

China’s IUU fishing affects American fishermen and puts them at a disadvantage by skewing the global price of fish. Overfished seas take longer to replenish and threaten U.S. economic security at the regional and international levels.

 The U.S. Coast Guard has made strong efforts to increase its effort to deter IUU fishing activity, but without proper funding, its capabilities remain limited. The U.S. must provide additional funding for the Coast Guard so its cutters can maintain an active presence in U.S. EEZs.

The U.S. must also work with its allies in the Pacific to curb China’s influence campaign in the South China Sea.

USCGC Munro sailing alongside a Japanese Coast Guard cutter

Some of the U.S.’s Pacific partners, like Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, can all play a role in stopping China’s illegal fishing fleets. Joint operations, intelligence sharing, and funding law enforcement will all help in stopping IUU fishing.

China’s IUU fishing activity is a branch of the greater conflict with the U.S. and its allies and must be taken seriously to protect freedom and order worldwide.


2 thoughts on “The Chinese Invasion of Global Fish Markets

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