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Appetite for Destruction: China’s Fishing Problem in Latin American Waters

Latin American waters have fallen prey to China’s economic pandering, particularly Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. China’s fishing exploitation is heedless towards ecologically sensitive waters, especially the Galapagos Islands, revered for its unique flora and fauna. In one month, 300 fishing vessels have spent a total of 73,000 hours fishing off of the Galapagos coasts.

China’s geopolitical ambitions ubiquitously have been projected through the country’s increasing political, diplomatic, and economic influence across the globe. One of the newest sources of conflict has arrived through China’s aggressive and oftentimes illegal fishing practices carried out by parts of its fishing fleet which comprises an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats worldwide. The deepwater fleet’s improper fishing techniques include overfishing and violations of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China signed, that establishes 200 miles from a nation’s coast to be reserved for a country’s own fishermen, unless arranged otherwise explicitly by the government.  This conflict has heightened due to China’s growing domestic demand for seafood which has forced the government to scour for stock supplies outside of their overfished coastal areas.

China is the world’s biggest seafood exporter. Thus the Chinese fishing fleet has pivoted towards the waters of other weaker countries, where their governments lack the resources necessary to protect their waters adequately.

Consequently, Latin American waters have fallen prey to China’s economic pandering, particularly Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. China’s fishing exploitation is heedless towards ecologically sensitive waters, especially the Galapagos Islands, revered for its unique flora and fauna. In one month, 300 fishing vessels have spent a total of 73,000 hours fishing off of the Galapagos coasts.

What else makes Latin American coasts so enticing to China’s search for seafood? The shores of Latin America provide a plethora of fish populations, geographically benefitting from the Humboldt Current— drifting, nutrient-rich water that travels from Chile to southern Ecuador. China’s hunt for squid in particular has damaged food stocks essential to the survival of the exotic species on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Squids are crucial for  the diets of Galapagos species such as fur seals, hammerheads, as well as the tuna and billfish, which local economies rely on. The aggressiveness of the fleets, accounting for 99 percent of fishing activity between July 13 and August 13 has led Ecuador’s government to vocally oppose China’s presence off of their coast. Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno claims this level of protection is for “one of the richest fishing areas and a hotbed of life for the entire planet” in a tweet in July.

Such practices stand in violation of international norms regarding environmental protections and ethical fishing. Corrosive overfishing in Latin America demonstrates a tipping in balance towards meeting high market competitiveness and away from consideration of the environment and local economies. In Chile alone, there are fishery laws in place reserving waters near the shore for the artisan fishing class. Unchecked fishing, however, has significantly depleted these waters, propagating economic hardship and threatening  the livelihoods of local fisherman. 

To put things into perspective, China currently accounts for one-third of the world’s total seafood consumption. Such high demands have led to detrimental and growingly irreparable environmental consequences. Many of the fishing vessels in the country’s  fleet deploy the practice of “trawling waters” in which a fishing boat drags a net across the seafloor, consequently scooping everything in its way, including coral reefs and other habitats already in vulnerable states. 

In October, Chilean news outlets warned of the presence of 300 foreign fishing vessels, noting that most of them were from China and fishing illegally off of Chilean coasts. The Chilean Undersecretariat for Fisheries and Aquaculture recently reported that the country is permanently working to control and monitor their territories from further extraction. Furthermore, the manager of Public Affairs of the Association of Fisheries Industries of the south central zone in Chile, Veronica Ceballos, also concluded that they suspect that the advance of the “mega fleet” is harming the conservation of sea animals, such as squid and horse mackerel, warning that to fish as a means to counter illegal trawling defensive could lead to further damage. Chile, one of the world’s major exporters of seafood, banned squid trawling in 2019, only allowing the artisan method of fishing, which has allowed foreign fleets to exploit these resources with less local competition. Thus, as Chile abandoned the industrial fishing of squid, and simultaneously lost 2,000 jobs in the process, its ecological efforts are being squashed by international forces taking advantage of the country’s abundant resources. 

This is not China’s  first hegemonic fishing fleet. As the PRC  infamously depleted its own fishing stocks close to Chinese marine border, it has also sent 700 of these “ghost boats” along North Korean waters in 2019. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities issue the loss of 11-26 million tons of fish each year, summing to the economic value of $10-23 billion dollars in USD. China also leads as the worst-performing country in terms of addressing vulnerability, prevalence, response, and overall action when it comes to state responsibility regarding fish consumption and fishing according to the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Index in 2019. 

Ultimately, the United States, Japan, the European Union, and other countries interested in the traceability and accountability within the global seafood market, should take a  vested interest not only in establishing standards, but also monitoring the usage of illegal seafood products. The standards and enforcement must indicate dedication towards repairing environmental devastation and impact on local economies. Fortunately, many Latin American countries are taking different measures to combat illegal fishing, such as Ecuador’s collaboration with Kleos Space to monitor suspected fishing, Peru and Chile’s resolution to increase the availability of data on illegal fishing, as well as Peru’s prosecution of illegal fishing in domestic waters. Despite these efforts, a unified regional and global response is severely lacking. 

To make up for the lack of global response, NGOs have stepped in to assist local authorities in identifying vessels that regularly attempt to circumvent identification by falsifying their nationality, vessel owner, or fishing location. A conjoined effort between authorities and NGOs may offer new expertise and resources that may not otherwise exist in the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing processes. Nonprofit NGOs, such as TMT and Oceanmind, have increasingly become interested in helping enforcement officials with data analysis and aspects of the fishing tracking procedures. An improvement in the accountability and inspection of fishing vessels may deter foreign forces, such as China’s vessels, from committing fishing crimes, and in turn force them to comply with standing law and regulation. A collectively improved system for compliance and enforcement will trickle down to benefit local fisheries who are not only committed to sustainable fishing, but economically dependent on it.

Latin American countries have also remained demure to formulate tangible action in fear of losing commodity exports to China or the accumulating loans from Chinese banks. As China’s economic engagement has increased in Latin America in recent years, many Chinese companies often do not adhere to the international environmental, labor, and safety standards. US Secretary Mike Pompeo has warned of “malign” behavior and “predatory” lending that has injected “corrosive capital into the economic bloodstream, giving life to corruption and eroding good governance.”

Latin America has struggled with evolving forms of foreign influence for centuries from hegemonic power. Whether it be overfishing its coasts, or extraction of other natural resources, the increasing presence of China’s economic conquest rejects the local residents’ livelihood, laws, and communities. Despite the countries’ growingly complex relationship, there is still room for cooperation between Latin America and China so that both may benefit from economic growth, but this cooperation is deeply relianton Chinese acknowledgement that  local economies are hurting from the  pervasive presence of their companies.




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By Vanessa Mendivil

Vanessa Mendivil is a second year Political Science student at UCLA, as well as a staff writer for the Journal on World Affairs.

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