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Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is not just an environmental challenge, it also poses a threat to food security, employment and state development. It is often conducted by transnational criminal networks and, in some cases, it even perpetuates conflict. The Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, stated that ‘IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect a deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.’

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 biennial IUU Fishing Report to Congress, also noted a significant increase in alleged illegal fishing by Chinese-flagged vessels in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of other countries in almost every region of the world. The US Department of State similarly notes that ‘China is one of the world’s worst perpetrators of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, disregarding fisheries management measures.’

It is likely that most Chinese IUU fishing is committed by distant water fishing vessels that operate outside of Chinese waters, usually within the EEZs of countries with limited abilities to monitor foreign fishing ships. While Beijing continues to issue new laws to regulate the fishing industry, there is some uncertainty about how effective they will be in addressing the questionable activities of the distant water fishing fleet, especially as the industry supports the naval modernisation ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party.

Key points:

  • Chinese interests operate the largest distant water fishing fleet in the world, estimated to be 1,600-3,400 ships in size.
  • The Chinese distant water fishing fleet could be five to eight times larger than that, however, and operate in every region of the world.
  • While most of those vessels operate legally, with permission from host states and in accordance with international maritime law, there is considerable scope for Chinese fishing operators to act in a legal grey zone.
  • Beijing has militarised part of its fishing fleet, enabling it to act as a third sea force capable of projecting power and advancing Chinese strategic interests.
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