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Maritime Heist

China's predatory fishing fleets are denuding fish stocks and marine ecosystems on an unprecedented industrial scale. International collective action is urgently needed.
Kevin Edes | NOVEMBER 14, 2023
Maritime Heist

Kevin Edes

Maritime Security Analyst

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The desecration of maritime habitats and life-sustaining coral reefs is a clear and present threat at the hands of China's massive fishing fleet. The maritime equivalent to poisoning a sovereign nation’s local farms, this threat has already had multi-generational impacts to the economy, climate and food supplies. Collaborative and bold solutions are imperative.

Admiral Linda Fagan, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, identified China as one of the prime culprits in illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, committing “theft of a nation’s natural resources.” Chinese fishing vessels steal coral for jewelry, giant clams for the ivory industry, and fish stocks to feed its own population. This is theft on a grand scale, unrestricted warfare on natural resources. The pilfering is happening across Asia, throughout the Pacific as far west as the Galapagos Islands, and off the West African coast, even within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) to which countries have a sovereign right to all natural resources.

Do not clam up on this issue just because it is only coral, clams and fish. Coral and giant clams are the life source of the ocean, easing the impacts of climate change, providing a protective breeding ground for fish, and serving as water filters. Giant clams increase the biodiversity of the coral which supports vital fisheries in the South China Sea. These fisheries account for 12% of the world’s catch and 28% of the protein to sustain human life in the region. The ongoing destruction at the hands of Chinese fishermen guarantees a loss of environmental and food security for future generations across the region.

China’s ever-present and increasingly belligerent gray zone tactics have been exposed through video documentation and policies of assertive transparency. The recently publicized destruction of Iroquois Reef in the West Philippine Sea and subsequent movement by the Philippine government to bring an environmental case against China is assertive transparency in action, and is well within Manila's EEZ rights under the terms of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

China is not the only nation with fishing fleets engaging in international environmental destruction, but it is by far the largest and greatest threat. To protect these critical habitats and essential food sources from fishing poachers, governments and policy makers must focus on the following: 

  1. Document and globally broadcast maritime plundering of sovereign resources.
  2. Build upon existing satellite tools and ship-tracking systems with drone and sensor technology to close the maritime domain awareness gap at sea.
  3. Expand bilateral and multilateral partnerships to improve resource management, information sharing, and shiprider agreements to deter, identify, and confront maritime thieves.

It is past time for collective action. China’s own reefs are 80% destroyed and its vast fishing fleets are in search of new prey. Theft of giant claims and desecration of coral reefs eradicate marine biodiversity and fisheries that sustain the current and future livelihood of every maritime nation and every population that depends on fish for sustenance. Without immediate action, food scarcity will increase and economic opportunity will decrease, laying the foundation for national and regional instability. 

Maritime thievery must be identified and denounced on the regional and global stages. Only when nations increase cooperation in maritime patrols and information sharing while pursuing legal and economical consequences will vital national resources be protected from predatory fishing fleets.

Kevin Edes

Kevin is a Maritime Security Analyst for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He is a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard with advanced degrees from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at U.C. San Diego and the U.S. Naval War College. Opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of any of the above institutions.

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