It’s Time for China to Cut Bait: Countering CCP Illegal Fishing
Due to the illegal fishing that’s being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party, the global fish supply is in danger. It’s time for the United States to take action by leveraging regional partnerships to ensure that China cuts bait, thereby keeping fish a viable food source for the 3 billion people for whom it is a major source of protein.
Last month, the U.S. Navy’s top intelligence officer — Rear Admiral Michael Studemann — renewed calls to hold China accountable for its illegal fishing, arguing, “Every other country shouldn’t suffer for China’s rise.” But if the CCP’s illegal fishing continues unchallenged, that’s precisely what will happen — especially given the looming food security crisis.
China’s surge in illegal fishing is the result of two factors: its fleet size and its decline in domestic fish production. China’s distant water fishing fleet is now the largest in the world with an estimated 12,000 to 17,000 vessels — an exact figure is difficult to pin down as China is less than forthcoming about the actual number of its fishing boats. China has also seen a decline in its domestic fish stocks, in part, due to overfishing. China has overfished to the point where less than 15% of its original fish biomass remains. Together these factors have turned China into the worst offender of illegal fishing practices globally, ranking 1 out of 152 coastal countries. This blatant disregard for legal fishing practices has disastrous effects on global fish markets.
Almost 90% of the world’s remaining commercially viable fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. Because of the covert nature of illegal fishing, catch data is unavailable for the amount of fish being pulled in by individual countries. However, given the estimated size of China’s illegal fishing fleet in comparison with other countries, it is safe to assume that China is responsible for a significant amount of the exploitation of global fish stocks.
China does not play by the rules — that much is clear. What’s less clear is how the United States has been working to curtail China’s flagrant cheating. Last year, the Biden administration put forth a memo concerning the need to combat illegal fishing. By offering a strategic framework that outlines which international partnerships can be leveraged in furtherance of this goal, the memo offers a roadmap, but the plan requires action in order to be effective.
The U.S. now needs to take action and work on establishing and leveraging more regional partnerships to curtail illegal fishing. The magnitude of China’s fleet and the complexity of ocean monitoring and surveillance make it next to impossible for a single nation to put an end to China’s illegal fishing. Meaning, partnerships are vital, and the United States must take the necessary steps to establish and foster new regional partnerships.
The United States has already seen the success of such an approach. Currently, the United States leads an anti-illegal fishing effort in coordination with members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. The Quad is a regional partnership with the United States, Japan, India, and Australia all claiming membership. The primary focus of the partnership is to address mutual concerns and threats in the Indo-Pacific region.
Members of the Quad met in May 2022 which resulted in tangible actions that addressed illegal fishing. Chief among them was improving maritime domain awareness which improves the protection of fisheries by linking surveillance systems to track illegal fishing. Therefore, the United States should use the Quad as a template and establish similar anti-illegal fishing partnerships with other regional groups.
The threat of illegal fishing from China is not, unfortunately, limited to the Indo-Pacific. Because China’s illegal fishing reaches the coasts of Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, these regions are where the U.S. should focus its partnership efforts. The U.S. should lead efforts within these regions to cut China’s lines by increasing surveillance coordination through new partnerships that empower enforcement mechanisms. Though the presidential memo mentions leveraging opportunities, there needs to be more concrete action taken on behalf of the administration.
The whole world suffers from China’s abuse of the global fishing supply. The magnitude of the Chinese fleet and the difficulty in maritime surveillance has allowed China free reign over the waters of the world. The United States must prioritize current and future partnerships to ensure our ability to hold China accountable.