Endangered Species, Chinese Ships and Millions in Losses: Global Alarm Over Fishing Pirates

December 23, 2021

Illegal fishing constitutes one of the main threats to global maritime security

Piracy, one of the most frequent illegal activities centuries ago, is once again presented as one of the main threats in the world’s oceans through illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The consequences are alarming: In addition to the damage to the ecosystem, economic losses are counted in the billions, and various human rights violations occur as a result of this criminal activity.

According The Economist, Illegal fishing represents between 20 and 50% of global catches, being the rich waters of the oceans Indian Y peaceful the most affected.

This illegal activity develops from a wide range of actions. “IUU fishing exists in all types and dimensions of fishing, it occurs both on the high seas and in areas under national jurisdiction, affects all aspects and stages of the capture and use of fish and, on occasions, can be associated with organized crime “, warns the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, for its acronym in English).

The agency details that, on occasions, illegal fishing is carried out “by national or foreign vessels in waters under the jurisdiction of a State, without the latter’s permission or in contravention of its legislation.” In that sense, China represents the largest predator in the world. In recent times, it has set off the alarms in the American continent, where countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, among others, saw the threat from the Chinese regime’s fishing vessels grow.

The United States, which has expressed concern “about China’s fishing practices”, stated in November this year that “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has replaced piracy as the main threat to global maritime security.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that countries are responsible for their ships and for ensuring that they comply with national and international laws. Also known as the “Constitution of the Sea”, it establishes the jurisdiction of nations over their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which extend up to 200 miles (321 kilometers) from the mainland. Within that space only states can legitimately manage and exploit natural resources through local companies or by licensing foreign agents.


FAO argues that Illegal fishing “undermines national and regional fish stock conservation and management efforts and, as a consequence, limits progress towards meeting long-term sustainability and accountability goals.” Likewise, “it represents a great disadvantage and discrimination for fishermen who act responsibly, honestly and in accordance with the conditions of their fishing authorizations.”

This makes this criminal activity the main cause of the plummeting fish populations: only one fifth of commercial species are fished sustainably.

In addition, the economic losses are increasingly worrying. Piracy robs coastal states more than $ 20 billion a year, damaging the livelihoods of millions of legal fishers. That figure represents a loss of up to 26 million tonnes of fish annually.

For their part, illegal fishing operators are also implicated in other crimes, from shark finning to drug trafficking. Sharks and their fins are popular in Asian markets. A shark fin soup can cost between USD 100 and USD 200. Hence, this species is also caught by fishermen.

According to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2011, fleets from distant waters are often dependent on forced labor and fishing vessels are used as mother ships for smuggling drugs and weapons.

The Economist notes that tens of thousands of crew from Southeast Asia and Africa work in subhuman conditions due to debts with Taiwanese, Chinese “and other unscrupulous operators of large fleets.”

In the pacific, fishing observers who control these criminal organizations on board “are routinely killed.”

Another of the multiple effects of illegal fishing is known as “Ghost fishing” which, according to the UN, occurs “when lost or abandoned fishing gear remains in the ocean and catches fish or other marine life, indiscriminately killing everything they catch.” “The killing of fish and other species, such as whales, dolphins, seals and turtles, some of which are in danger of extinction, it is one of the many devastating impacts of these discarded or abandoned gear but it maintains its ability to trap marine animals. “

One vessel, part of a fleet of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats, sails in international waters of the Pacific Ocean near Chile's exclusive maritime economic zone (Photo: REUTERS)
One vessel, part of a fleet of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats, sails in international waters of the Pacific Ocean near Chile’s exclusive maritime economic zone (Photo: REUTERS)

The vastness of the ocean makes it very difficult to enforce effective control over illegal fishing. While some countries do not have sufficient resources for maritime patrols, many others also lack regulations or efficient inspections in ports.

Despite this outlook of growing concern, for The Economist the year 2022 will mark a turning point Following the agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to force countries to end most of the subsidies harmful to their fisheries. An agreement that required almost 20 years of negotiations between the states.

Even China, long reluctant to this initiative, was forced to give in to international pressure.

Enric Sala, explorer The National Geographic, warned that the removal of subsidies on fuel and other products could kill half of the deep-sea fishing. “That would include China’s devastating bottom trawling off the west coast of Africa.”, considered as “the black hole of the seas”.

The specialist explained that these grants can be redirected towards protecting fish stocks and livelihoods, and, thus, that 2022 is the year “in which we begin to replenish the ocean instead of emptying it.”

Another sign of hope is the growing pressure from the international community to protect and conserve the 30% of the oceans by 2030.

International maritime authorities seek to strengthen the fight against illegal fishing
International maritime authorities seek to strengthen the fight against illegal fishing

Regarding the difficult task of control and patrolling, Mark Zimring, from The Nature Conservancand, highlighted the importance of advanced technology, which allows better monitoring of fishing fleets. As detailed, through increasingly developed satellite images will be able to identify more easily the “dark fleets.” In addition, he referred to the electronic monitoring of catches on board through “big data”.

The British publication announced that from next year more light will also be shed on “the murky” global supply chains. Sally Yozell, from the Stimson Center – an American think tank – asserted that an approach that emphasizes “traceability and transparency” of seafood supply chains, from the moment the fish is caught until it reaches the destination country, will force the international market of maritime products to refine its actions.

By last, It will also be essential to continue growing efforts to prosecute members of criminal organizations on the ground. This is not an easy task, as they tend to easily elude port inspectors hiding “behind bronze plaques in opaque tax jurisdictions.”

Keep reading:

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