Trawling for trouble

Date: April 16, 2016

Source & Author: The Economist

Why do Chinese fishermen keep getting arrested?

AS A deterrent it is wasteful, polluting and provocative. But it is also, Indonesia’s government insists, highly effective. On April 5th the country’s maritime-affairs minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, watched live feed from seven different places as 23 Malaysian and Vietnamese trawlers, seized for illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, were blown to smithereens. Since Joko Widodo assumed the presidency in 2014 and promised to look out for local fishing communities, Indonesia has now destroyed more than 170 foreign vessels. The government says the number of poachers has fallen, and the catch of the domestic fleet has increased. Now the combative and popular (at least at home) Miss Susi hopes that the country’s Supreme Court will allow her to destroy ten more vessels, seized for poaching in 2014 and coming from the country with more boats than any other involved in Asia’s huge and growing business of illegal fishing: China.

Burning their boat

Indonesia is already seething with anger at China’s reaction to an incident last month in which a Chinese coastguard cutter rammed free a Chinese fishing boat as the Indonesian authorities were towing it to port, having just caught it poaching in waters off Indonesia’s Natuna islands. Eight of the crew were detained. The ninth has since managed to bring the boat back to the southern Chinese port of Beihai, escorted by the Chinese cutter. There he told the New York Times it was “probable” that he and his shipmates had been fishing in Indonesian waters. In fact, it seems almost certain. Indonesia’s possession of the Natunas is undisputed, and under international law the Chinese were well inside its “exclusive economic zone”. Yet China defended the crew by claiming they were in waters that were “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”. The waters are inside the sweeping “nine-dash line” that China draws on its maps (and even passports) to mark its claim over almost the entire South China Sea.

Chinese fishermen have been detained in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of whose maritime claims overlap with or mirror China’s. But it is not just in contested waters that they get into trouble. Chinese have also been detained in the Russian Far East, North Korea and Sri Lanka in recent years. In 2011 a Chinese fisherman stabbed a South Korean coastguard to death. The next year one was killed by the police in Palau, a tiny Pacific republic. Farther afield, last December two dozen African countries called on China to stop illegal fishing off west Africa. And just this week four Chinese fishermen were freed from detention in Argentina.

More than national sovereignty, what is driving these far-flung adventures is that China is by far the world’s largest consumer (and exporter) of fish. Chinese fish-consumption per person is twice the global average. Aquaculture has met much of this growing demand. But China’s wild catch also dwarfs that of other countries (13.9m tonnes in 2012, compared with 5.4m for Indonesia, 5.1m for America, 3.6m for Japan and 3.3m for India). Overfishing and pollution have blighted China’s inshore fisheries. Stocks are severely depleted: in the South China Sea, with a tenth of the global fish catch, inshore (coastal) fisheries have just 5-30% left of the stocks they had in the 1950s. Chinese fishermen are driven farther offshore and into distant waters.

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