China and IUU Fishing in IOR: Need for India to Lead Mitigation Efforts
Anurag Bisen, Senior Fellow, VIF
Introduction

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a vital hub of global economic significance, with a significant portion of the world's oil and container traffic passing through it. The Indian Ocean also holds rich marine resources which are equally crucial for the region's sustenance. In this regard, the fisheries sector is vital to the economies of and livelihoods of populations of the littoral states of the IOR, playing a major role in ensuring food security.

The term Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing was first used formally in a 1997 report by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), highlighting the growing risk of overfishing in the Southern Ocean[1]. It encompasses a range of fishing activities that violate national and international fishing regulations. It includes illegal fishing, which involves activities conducted without permission in contravention of laws and regulations, unreported fishing where catches are not reported or are misreported, and unregulated fishing that occurs in areas without applicable conservation measures or in violation of conservation and management measures[2].

IUU Fishing practices affect the sustainability of fish stocks and are an important issue of concern under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG)-14 as also in the IOR. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that 64.6% of fishery stocks are within biologically sustainable levels and 35.4% at biologically unsustainable levels[3]. The (SDGs) had set a clear target on fisheries (SDG Target 14.4): to end overfishing of marine fisheries by 2020[4]. SDG target 14.6 aims to, by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing and eliminate subsides that contribute to IUU fishing[5]. FAO estimates that IUU fishing amounting to 11-26 million tonnes is harvested illicitly each year, worth between USD 10 and 23 billion[6]. The EU factsheet estimates that the extent of IUU fishing is 19 percent of the worldwide reported value of catches, estimated to be USD 11 billion annually, is a serious threat to sustainable fishing, damages the marine environment and affects socio-economic conditions of the coastal communities that survive on fishing.

Apart from exacerbating food and environmental security they also negatively impact maritime and national security of the IOR littoral countries, very substantially.

Indian Ocean is increasingly witnessing incidents of IUU fishing on a scale never seen before. In May 2023 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a report that examined the extent and economic impacts of IUU fishing of shrimp/prawn and tuna species in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of five countries in the Southwest Indian Ocean (SWIO): Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania[7]. The research showed that as much as USD142.8 million of potential income is lost from the income of these five countries every year because of IUU fishing linked to just two species[8].

China is a major state actor, responsible for much of the IUU Fishing worldwide. China's Distant Water Fishing fleet stands out from other nations due to its size, behaviour, and geopolitical purpose. Reports have shown that China leads the world in destructive fishing methods and has expanded its fishing fleet into international waters. Overfishing, illegal fishing operations into other countries' waterways, and the depletion of fish supplies have all been linked to the nation's fishing activities. Therefore, any study of IUU fishing in IOR and Indian waters would not be complete without examining China’s role and its distant water fishing fleet. This Paper examines China’s role in and facilitation of IUU fishing in IOR in detail. The Paper ends with recommendations to combat and mitigate the challenges of China and IUU fishing in IOR.

China’s Fisheries Sector

Fishing is an important industry in China. According to the FAO, 182 million tonnes of fish was produced globally in 2020, valued at USD 406 billion. With 35.8 percent of the world's total fish production, China is the largest producer by far[9]. On its own, China consumed 36 percent of all aquatic foods available globally, for food consumption in 2019[10]. China also has the world’s largest fishing fleet, estimated at 564,000 vessels[11]. China has been the main driver for the global per capita growth in aquatic food consumption, due to its major expansion in fisheries and aquaculture production and its own per capita consumption growing from 4.2 kg in 1961 to 40.1 kg in 2019[12]. China is the world’s top importing country of aquatic products, far ahead of the United States of America, and has risen to become the world’s largest producer, exporter and processor of aquatic products, exporting worth USD 18 billion accounting for 12 percent of the global total in 2022[13]. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged his country’s fishermen to “build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish” [14].

Chinese Distant Water Fishing (DWF) Fleet

The Chinese distant water fishing (DWF) was started in 1985, in an attempt to reduce the pressure on China’s traditional fishing operations in coastal and inshore grounds[15]. China defined (in 2003) DWF as ‘citizens, legal entities, and other organization organisations of the PRC engaging in marine fishing and its processing, supply, and product transportation activities on the high seas and in the sea areas under the jurisdiction of other countries’, but does not include the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, or South China Sea[16].

While many countries have DWF fleets of varying sizes, vessel composition, and the species they pursue, the world’s top five DWF fleets (China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain) account for about 90 percent of the world’s total DWF fleet[17]. Among these, China’s DWF fleet is by far the largest and most prolific, with vessels operating in most regions of the world[18]. The Chinese DWF contribute between 3-4 million tons of the total marine catches of Mainland China of 14-16 million tonnes[19].

Figure 6: Marine fisheries catch by Mainland Chinese domestic and distant water fleets[20]

Estimates of the Chinese DWF fleet numbers vary greatly. A Study prepared (December 2022) for European Parliament's Committee on Fisheries reports large discrepancy and uncertainty in the number of vessels of the Chinese DWF estimating it to 900 at the lower end and 2900 at the higher estimate[21].

By its own admission, in 2022, China had 2,551 DWF vessels (including 1,498 high seas fishing vessels) operating in the high seas of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, and the seas around Antarctica, as well as in the waters under the jurisdiction of cooperating countries, with a total catch of around 2.33 million tonnes[22]. In contrast, India has only 95 deep sea fishing vessels, about 3.60% of China[23].

Furthering China’s National Interests

Apart from helping China attain food security by ensuring that 60-65 percent of its catch goes to Chinese markets, the DWF fleet is also used by China as an instrument of national power, towards achieving the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) stated goal of making China a “strong maritime power.” [24] China has often capitalised on its DWF activity to build economic ties, strengthen relationships, and cultivate influence in general, and affect specific policy or diplomatic outcomes[25]. China encourages its fishing companies to undertake joint ventures and has established numerous bilateral fisheries agreements[26]. The Chinese DWF fleets usually gain legal access to the fisheries resources in other countries’ EEZ through joint ventures, bilateral agreements, private agreements, and licensing through non-transparent quid pro quo investments in infrastructure or training programmes for the local fisheries industry[27]. China has acquired about 75% of the 130 fishing licenses issued by Mozambique, allowing Chinese vessels to exploit the country's rich fishing grounds. The Chinese origin Yu Yi Industry Co. which presently has 18 vessels, signed five-year fisheries agreement with Mozambique. In November 2018, the first haul of seafood caught in Mozambique by the Co. arrived at a port in Shenzhen, following a 6,000 km journey from Mozambique[28]. Meanwhile, China has invested significantly in rebuilding the port at Beira through a USD 120 million loan, further expanding its presence in Mozambique's maritime sector[29]. The port is operating only at 30 percent of its full capacity and handles produce of around 200,000 tonnes/year against original projections of 700,000 tonnes/year, due to lack of demand, and is unable to produce sufficient revenue to meet outstanding interest payments. This has led to fears of Chinese seizing the port to make good their loan[30].

State Subsidies to DWF Fleet

China heavily subsidises its DWF fleet. Fishing subsidies have been estimated to be USD 6 or 7 billion annually, or roughly USD 347,000 per vessel, compared to around USD 23,000 per vessel annually by the European Union[31]. The subsidies have helped the Chinese DWF fleet to consist of larger and more advanced fishing vessels with greater endurance and seaworthiness, which have larger nets and more powerful engines[32]. Despite China advocating policies for curbing worldwide IUU fishing and reducing some types of subsidies between 2009 and 2018, it more than doubled the capacity-enhancing subsidies of its DWF, which are categorized as more harmful than other subsidies[33]. Chinese DWF fleets operating in Mauritania, Senegal, Madagascar, Mauritius, Ecuador, and the Solomon Islands have reportedly received varying levels of subsidies from the Chinese government[34]. China’s state support for its DWF activity also extends to investments in supporting infrastructure, which is crucial for its DWF fleet to remain commercially viable. Lately however, China appears to be taking steps to rein in subsidies and recently, on 27 June 2023, deposited its instrument of acceptance for the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies[35] to the WTO[36].

Worldwide Presence of Chinese DWF

Chinese DWF vessels have long endurances and can fish for over a year in waters far from the Chinese mainland. These catcher vessels off-load their catch to large, refrigerated cargo vessels (reefers), which periodically make port calls to offload and process the catch, and to resupply[37].

Between 2019 and 2021, China’s DWF fished in EEZs of over 80 other countries for more than 3 million hours including countries in the Indian Ocean Region, Africa, South America, Russia, and Oceania, reported Investigative Journalism Reportika (IJK) [38].

The Chinese DWF fleet is routinely reported in waters of the Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Pacific Oceans, including waters off South America, East and West Africa, Antarctica, and the South Pacific Islands, apart from the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and East China Sea[39]. Another Study reported that Chinese DWF fleets operated from 2018-2020 in hot spots around the focus areas chosen for its study, i.e., off Ecuador, off the west of Africa (Mauritania and Senegal), off the east coast of Madagascar, around Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and around the east and southern coasts of the Solomon Islands[40].

IUU Fishing by Chinese Vessels

The 2021 IUU Fishing Index, which ranks over 150 coastal countries worldwide based on their vulnerability to, practice of, and response to harmful fishing practices, listed China as the top global offender[41]. An investigative report by IJK stated that over 60 per cent of China’s vessels are involved in IUU fishing worldwide[42]. Another study on impact of China on world fisheries estimated that the unreported industrial catch of Chinese DWF subject to illicit trade was, on an average, 65 percent of the unreported DWF catch and 17 percent of the total DWF catch for the period between 1980 and 2019[43].

The Chinese DWF is often found guilty of violating the domestic laws of the respective countries and the UNCLOS, indulging in targeting endangered species, falsifying licenses and documentation, espionage and reconnaissance activities, seizing territories, generating a lot of sea waste, and violating EEZs of other nations, reported IJK [44].

Chinese DWF taking Advantage of Gaps in Jurisdiction

Legal gaps and the presence of extra-regional fishing fleets contribute significantly to IUU fishing[45]. Some of the primary reasons for IUU fishing in the IOR are the gaps in spatial areas of competence of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) and gaps between the groups of species covered by RFMOs. China exploits these gaps in jurisdiction to engage in IUU fishing in the IOR, taking advantage of the lack of clear regulations and enforcement in these areas.

In the IOR, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) manages Tuna and Tuna like species, which are highly migratory, while the RFMO managing by geographical area is Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA). Although the regulatory framework of IOTC covers both the Indian Ocean high seas and the EEZs of the coastal states, there are significant areas in the northwest and southeast quadrants of the Indian Ocean basin that are not covered by SIOFA or any other RFMO, making them wide open to unregulated fishing for non-tuna species[46]. The eastern Indian Ocean covers an unregulated oceanic area several times larger than the area in northwest Indian Ocean[47].

A WWF / Trygg Mat Tracking (WWF/TMT) report investigating unregulated fishing in the Indian Ocean in 2020, with data and analytical support from Global Fishing Watch (GFW), using automatic identification system (AIS) data, assessed that across the Indian Ocean, while spatial regulatory coverage for species covered by tuna and tuna-like species specific RFMO IOTC[48] and for southern Bluefin tuna (CCSBT) [49] was comprehensive including for both the high seas and EEZs, for non-tuna RFMOs, there were significant gaps[50].The WWF/TMT study also found a significant proportion of global squid fishing does not yet fall under the remit of RFMO management or any international body, illustrating the challenge of monitoring squid in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese DWF has been known to take advantage of the gap in RFMO jurisdiction and undertake extensive squid fishing in the IOR. The joint WWF/TMT study reported that in the context of the squid fishery alone, the expansion of vessels to unregulated fisheries increased by 830 percent in five years — from 30 vessels in 2015 to 279 at the end of 2019. Based on the analysis of transmitted vessel identifiers and vessel movements, the report concluded that all vessels detected during the period of investigation in the fishery were either confirmed or likely Chinese-flagged fishing vessels[51]. It also identified more than 50 reefer vessels of which, nearly 40 percent were flagged to China[52].

Transhipment to Reefers

Chinese DWFs often tranship their catch at sea to reefers which also helps hide the illegal origin of catches. These other reefers (apart from the 40 percent Chinese) are mostly flags of convenience, dominated by Panama, Liberia, and Vanuatu-flagged reefers often hiding behind opaque databases i.e., unknown vessel names, origin or ownership. The implications of this opaqueness result in loss of income, notably in poor countries, e.g., USD 1.3 billion is lost with 37 percent of the catch due to IUU fishing in West Africa[53].

The European Parliament Study of China’s impact on world fisheries particularly in six focal countries i.e., Mauritania, Senegal, Madagascar, Mauritius, Ecuador and the Solomon Islands found that almost half (46 percent) of the IUU fishing incidents were committed by Chinese squid jiggers[54]. It also found doubtful the low number of incidents reported in the Indian Ocean, notably in the region around Madagascar and Mauritius, citing a secret pact between China and Madagascar, signed in 2010 for 10-year right to fish, which might have reduced the monitoring for IUU infractions by Chinese vessels[55].

Switching off Automatic Identification System (AIS)

Another investigative report into Chinese DWF fleet claimed that the Captains of Chinese DWF vessels disable their transponders while engaging in illicit fishing, observing that the AIS aboard vessels suffered transmission pauses of at least eight hours near the EEZ of other countries[56].

Chinese Fishing Vessels and India

In 2019, 10 Chinese fishing vessels with more than 200 crew members on board, sought “emergency shelter” in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra during Cyclone Vayu[57]. Using the opportunity of taking shelter, the 10 vessels got involved in illegal fishing operations within India’s EEZ. While eight Chinese vessels remained anchored two nautical miles off the coast, two boats were brought inshore for further investigation. It was revealed that the boats were equipped with 500,000 KW of LED lights for purse seine, squid jigging and pelagic

trawling and also had other banned gear on board such as drifting gill nets, bottom trawl nets and dolphin attracting devices[58]. Of the 37 crew members of the two vessels who were questioned, the passports of 19 were found to have expired[59].

In another incident in the first half of 2022, in a statement attributed to the Indian Navy, The Hindu reported that 200-250 Chinese fishing vessels were monitored in the Indian Ocean, with a large concentration in the Northern Indian Ocean[60].

Figure 8: Chinese flagged fishing vessels fishing just inside the EEZ of India[61]

The presence of Chinese fishing vessels engaging in illegal fishing activities within India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) poses a significant threat to India's national security on multiple fronts, including violation of India's sovereignty and maritime boundaries, challenging its authority over its territorial waters. The involvement of Chinese fishing vessels equipped with banned gear and unauthorized fishing methods not only depletes marine resources but also disrupts the marine ecosystem causing loss of revenue for local fishermen.

China’s White Paper on Distant-Water Fisheries

On 24 October 2023, China's State Council Information released a white paper titled "Development of China's Distant-Water Fisheries[62]." Belatedly, China has committed to rein in its DWF by putting it under strict control during the 14th Five-year Plan period (2021-2025) and aims to keep the number of DWF vessels below 3,000 and their output around 2.3 million tonnes. The Chinese government also announced in 2021 that China will not increase squid jiggers nor expand its squid fleets on the high seas[63].

Recommendations

Being the leading maritime nation in the IOR, it is incumbent upon India to take a central role in combating IUU fishing in the IOR and put together a cooperative mechanism to mitigate the challenges of IUU fishing, including by China. Some of the recommendations are given below. The recommendations outlined herein will be thoroughly examined and discussed in detail in another paper on impact of IUU fishing on national security.

Baseline Data on IUU Fishing in IOR: In the absence of IOR specific database on IUU fishing, the immediate task at hand would need collation of such information from the relevant littoral states. This would help to identify the scope and extent of IUU fishing prevalent in the region and enable policy formulation and activation of measures to combat it.

Joint/Combined Fisheries-Patrols: Indian Navy undertakes coordinated patrols (CORPAT) with the navies of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand[64].

In the coordinated patrols, the respective navies patrol their respective waters, in coordination with each other. However, considering the lack of adequate resources among the navies/marine law enforcement agencies (MLEA) in the region, India could consider embarking the MLEA personnel of these countries on Indian Naval/Coast Guard ships to undertake joint/combined patrols for combating IUU fishing. Activities could include MLE, intelligence gathering, search and patrol and other MCS functions. The High-Seas Boarding and Inspection agenda also needs to be pursued at IOTC strongly for effectively managing IUU fishing.

Capacity Building and Capability Enhancement: India has been actively working towards capacity building and capability enhancement of navies of friendly countries in IOR, providing hardware and platforms, which includes ships and aircraft for the EEZ. The Indian Navy has also helped set up Coastal Radar Chains (CRS) in Sri Lanka, Mauritius, the Maldives and the Seychelles. India could incorporate capacity building of the IOR littoral states on IUU fishing in its list of cooperation activities. The gamut of activities could include enhanced MCS measures, integration of databases on maritime crime, undertaking workshops on regulatory framework and maritime law enforcement, intelligence gathering and enhancing general awareness of IUU fishing and its damaging impacts on a nation’s security.

Other capacity building activities could include regular interaction between civil and MLEA, fishers and their associations and law makers through the conduct of exchange programs/ seminars/ workshops aimed towards curbing IUU fishing and its associated criminal activities.

Information sharing and enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) among IOR Littorals: MDA among the countries of the region is almost non-existent resulting in gaps in effective MCS measures to counter IUU fishing. India could take the lead to promote MDA through sharing of the common operational picture (COP) among the like-minded countries of the region and through mechanisms such as IORA, BIMSTEC, Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation (BOBP-IGO) and IONS. The tracking of extra regional/Chinese DWF fleets needs to be undertaken in real time and the information shared through the cooperation mechanisms.

QUAD to Counter Chinese IUU Fishing: In the 2022 QUAD Tokyo summit, the group of four nations i.e., Australia, India, Japan and USA announced the ‘Indo Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA)’ programme with an aim to address inter alia IUU fishing in Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean Region[65]. The 2023 Hiroshima summit declared that the initiative was underway in its pilot phase and through it, maritime agencies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific were being provided near-real-time, integrated and cost-effective maritime domain data, and it was intended to expand coverage to partners in the Indian Ocean region in the coming months[66]. This is a welcome step. India could take the lead and extend the IPMDA benefits to CSC, BIMSTEC and IORA member countries especially on sharing of information and real time tracking of extra regional DWF fleets.

Expeditious Clearance of a Nationwide MFRM Act: Since fisheries is a state subject, India does not have an omnibus act to regulate fishing in the country’s EEZ. A nationwide act to regulate fishing is also necessary to fulfil India’s international obligations under the UNCLOS, the UNSDG Goal 14.4 and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements. The act is also required to ensure compliance with binding resolutions on Conservation and Management Measures (CMMs) adopted by IOTC and have enabling domestic legislation for optimum exploitation of tuna and tuna like resources in our EEZ. It is also necessary to protect India’s interests, especially of the artisanal fishermen, in fisheries subsidies negotiations on issues relating to IUU fishing.

In the latest effort towards streamlining and regulation of fishing in India, a Marine Fisheries Regulation and Management (MFRM) Bill was placed by the GoI in the public domain for discussion in 2019[67]. Presently, The Draft Indian Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021 is the latest version after stakeholders' consultations[68]. However, there is opposition to the Bill from various quarters including fishers’ unions and some state governments[69] and despite its best efforts[70] the GoI has been unable to get it cleared.

Most importantly, the act is necessary in the interests of India’s national security. The national security concerns of India are paramount and above those of coastal states’ narrow political considerations. Having an omnibus nationwide act will enable better maritime security, effective maintenance of law and order through close coordination with agencies of coastal States/UTs, safety of fishers, and better monitoring, traceability, and accountability of catch. It is therefore imperative that the MFRM Act be cleared at the earliest.

Apart from the MHRM Bill, draft guidelines for high sea fishing, and national fisheries policy is the need of the hour to manage the fisheries in the EEZ and beyond and restrict the IUU fishing. These recommendations are being dealt in detail on a separate paper on Impact of IUU Fishing on National Security.

Conclusion

Combating IUU fishing by China in IOR needs to be accorded due priority. If left unchecked, its unmitigated growth will impact not only food and environmental security but can easily spiral into the more traditional domains of maritime and national security. There is an urgent need to effectively apply international law, regional frameworks and domestic laws and policies to prevent IUU fishing as also undertake capacity building and capability enhancement of the littoral states. The need of the hour is to identify the threats to India’s security and limitations of our current approach with respect to IUU fishing and address them in an efficient and symbiotic manner.

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[35] Adopted at the WTO's 12th Ministerial Conference held in Geneva on 12-17 June 2022, the Agreement sets new binding, multilateral rules to curb harmful subsidies. The Agreement prohibits support for IUU fishing, bans support for fishing overfished stocks, and ends subsidies for fishing on the unregulated high seas.
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[48] IOTC covers the entire Indian Ocean – inclusive of all FAO statistical sub-areas of Areas 51 and 57 and EEZs of Indian Ocean Coastal States
[49] Since CCSBT has a single species of competence, southern bluefin tuna are managed by that Commission throughout their full range of distribution wherever they occur, including the Indian Ocean
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(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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