Chinese fishing fleet defies US in high seas standoff

Elsewhere in the Pacific, an entirely different kind of geopolitical conflict was forming this summer when China launched missiles off Taiwan in protest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Not far from Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, thousands of miles away, a heavily armed U.S. Coast Guard cutter sailed toward a convoy of hundreds of Chinese squid fishing boats. Its mission is to inspect vessels for signs of illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.

Boarding a vessel on the high seas is a perfectly legal tool, even if it is rarely used, and can be used by any seapower as part of a joint effort to protect the ocean’s threatened fish stocks. I can do it.

However, in this case, the Chinese captains of several fishing vessels acted unexpectedly. Three ships swooped down and one turned her 90 degrees aggressively towards Coast Guard Cutter James, forcing the American ship to take evasive action to avoid a collision.

“Most of the time they wanted to avoid us,” said Coast Guard Lt. Hunter Stowes, James’ top law enforcement officer. “But we were able to maneuver effectively, so we were safe all the way through.”

Still, the clash on the high seas represents a potentially dangerous violation of international maritime protocols and is viewed by the United States as a troubling precedent since it happened with the Coast Guard. First-ever mission against illegal fishing in the eastern Pacific.

The Associated Press has reconstructed details of the previously unreported incident from the Coast Guard and six nonmilitary officials. Chinese diplomats accused the Americans of acting inappropriately, but did not provide detailed explanations of their own.

The Coast Guard’s unprecedented voyage was sparked by heightened vigilance from Latin American activists and governments over the activities of China’s deep-sea fishing fleet, the world’s largest. The number of ships has surged eightfold, sometimes over several months, to 476 last year. Meanwhile, the squid catch increased from her 70,000 tons to her 422,000 tons. Some scientists worry that this level of catch is unsustainable, even for resilient species.

as revealed in AP-Univision Survey Last year, the Chinese fleet included some of the fishing industry’s worst criminals, with a long record of labor abuses, illegal fishing and maritime law violations. It is drawn to the open ocean, depleting its own near-by fish stocks and fueled by an increasingly fierce competition between two superpowers to ensure access to the world’s dwindling natural resources.

The 10-day poaching patrol in August was initially quiet. More than a month later, the Coast Guard released a brief statement celebrating the mission, as well as a photo of her two ships successfully boarded. However, no mention was made of her three escaped ships, and no clue was given as to their nationality.

However, this incident did not go unnoticed in China.

Within days, Beijing filed a formal written protest, according to US officials. Moreover, the issue was raised when US Ambassador Nicholas Burns was summoned by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for an emergency meeting over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, one of the people said.

China’s foreign ministry told The Associated Press that it does not condone illegal fishing, and it is the United States that is ignoring international standards by conducting unauthorized inspections that do not follow COVID protocols, risking the lives of seafarers. He said it could be dangerous.

“U.S. actions are unsafe, opaque and unprofessional,” the Foreign Office said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We call on the U.S. side to end its dangerous and erroneous inspection activities.”

The Coast Guard disputes the claim, saying all members of the boarding team wore masks, gloves and long sleeves, in addition to being vaccinated.

The Biden administration also informed the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) of possible violations found on two fishing vessels it investigated. ocean.

One of the most serious charges is against Yong Hang 3. Yong Hang 3 is a refrigerated cargo vessel used to transport fish to China, allowing small vessels to remain on the water for long periods of time. She is one of those who fled Coast Guard patrols, disobeying direct orders from Panama’s maritime authorities to cooperate. To obfuscate the activity, some vessels, especially refrigerated cargo ships, are named, controlled and docked in China, although they often fly under other flags.

Ultimately, if history is any guide, the Chinese Communist government will penalize the fleet of 3,000 deep-sea fishing vessels it sees as an extension of its growing naval power, fueled by generous state loans and fuel subsidies. Not likely.

According to Lieutenant Stowes, the Coast Guard patrol was meticulously planned.usa warned fisheries authorities over a year ago They intended to make boardings in the area and provided documentation showing photographs of the badges carried by the crew and the blue and white checkered flag held by the cutters. We have filed similar documents under the rules that allow our Members to inspect each other’s vessels.

“Just being there and doing the boarding really makes a statement,” Stowes said.

At-sea inspections are seen as an important tool for ensuring that fishing vessels comply with regulations regarding forced labor, the use of environmentally harmful equipment and the targeting of endangered species such as sharks.

China has repeatedly blocked efforts to tighten inspection procedures in the South Pacific. The most recent sabotage occurred last year, when China claimed that fishermen would be endangered if maritime patrols were allowed to carry firearms.

The rules, adopted unanimously in 2011, are based on the 1995 United Nations Convention (known as the Fish Stocks Agreement), which allows inspectors to use limited force to ensure security. I’m here.

In a sign of how geopolitical conflicts may have escalated since the Pacific incident, one official told AP that the State Department had warned Beijing of its international obligations and long track record of labor abuses in distant surface fleets. He said he sent a diplomatic document with harsh words that reminded him of violation.

The Biden administration is also considering whether to blacklist the vessels for illegal fishing and ban them from returning to the South Pacific at a meeting of fisheries management bodies in Ecuador.


This story was supported by funding from The Walton Family Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.


Goodman reported from Miami. Joe McDonald of Beijing contributed to this report.

Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman.