By Drake Long
Chinese fishing vessels are pouring back into disputed waters, satellite images show, after China ended its annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea and East China Sea, potentially heightening tension in the region as fleets compete for declining fish stocks.
This year’s ban started on May 1 and ended on Sunday, according to Chinese state media. Its imposition was opposed by neighboring countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, who reject China’s assertion of its jurisdiction over contested waters. But the 3½-month ban, which China says is aimed at environmental conservation, passed with relatively few recorded incidents involving non-Chinese boats and fishermen.
However, the end of the ban could usher in problems of its own. Vietnamese fishing associations and academics told BenarNews that the potential for conflict between fishermen from different countries will rise.
China is known for sending paramilitary ships and its coast guard to back its fishing fleets as they assert resource rights in disputed waters, or even within other countries’ exclusive economic zones.
Trang Pham, a lecturer of International Relations at Vietnam National University, says that without some agreement between China and Vietnam to share fishing rights in disputed waters, conflict is inevitable as ships jostle over prime catching spots.
“This puts Vietnamese fishermen in a difficult position as they need to [move their] equipment to protect themselves from the aggressive behavior of Chinese coast guards, which escort Chinese fishermen, and at the same time compete with a much larger number of Chinese fishermen in the area,” she said.
“Those fishermen are not rich, they just barely survive each day, so when they become desperate they may react awfully. That’s why the government needs to settle the dispute soon to, at the very least, guarantee the life of their own fishermen.”
China’s unilateral ban had encompassed an area north of the 12th parallel in the South China Sea, covering waters and islets that are disputed between China, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, raising suspicions that the ban was an attempt to assert Chinese jurisdiction over the area.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said the ban, which has been instituted annually since 1999, was the “toughest in history,” with thousands of patrols, seizing 1,691 illegal fishing boats and removing 630,000 square meters of illegal fishing nets. State-run TV showed scores of Chinese fishing boats leaving port for the South China Sea on Sunday.
Satellite images showed fishing boats on Sunday entering the Union Banks, an area of the Spratly island chain frequently visited by China’s fishing fleets and maritime militia as well as fishermen from neighboring countries.
Union Banks was notably not covered under the fishing ban, but other fishing boats, presumably Chinese, were farther north near Chinese-occupied features in the Paracels chain, such as Tree Island, Duncan Island, and Robert Island as of Monday and Tuesday. Some fishing boats were visible Tuesday in the harbor of Woody Island, China’s main base in the Paracels, a frequent stopping place for Chinese-operated ships moving through the South China Sea.
In the East China Sea, Japan already warned China not to let fishermen near the Senkaku Islands, a string of uninhabited islets that is administrated by Japan yet claimed by China. The Japanese government previously expressed alarm over the constant presence of Chinese government-affiliated ships within 24 nautical miles of the Senkakus.
“The repeated activities are extremely serious. Japan Coast Guard patrol ships have issued warnings, and we have protested to the Chinese side through diplomatic channels over and over again,” said Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a press conference in July.
The Chinese fishing ban coincided with a period of heightened tension in the South China Sea, as Beijing presses its sweeping claims to virtually the entire strategic waterway, and the United States pushes back with its own displays of military might in the region.
While the ban passed off with relatively few incidents between Chinese authorities and fishermen from other countries, there were some confrontations.
A Chinese ship was accused of ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in early June around the Paracel Islands, in the north of the South China Sea, while video emerged of a China Coast Guard ship spraying another Vietnamese fisherman with a water cannon in July.
Tran Van Linh, chairman of a fishery association based in the central Vietnamese coastal city of Danang, contended that China’s ambitions go beyond securing fish stocks.
“They want to show their power in the South China Sea for the purpose of hegemony,” Linh told RFA’s Vietnamese-language service, a sister entity of BenarNews, adding that about 17,000 fishing boats with special nets and lights had been sent to fishing grounds in the South China Sea.
Illegal fishing is rife in the South China Sea, and disputes over fishing grounds are not limited to just China.
Members of the Malaysian coast guard on Sunday shot dead a Vietnamese sailor during a violent confrontation with Vietnamese-flagged fishing boats suspected of encroaching in Malaysian waters of the South China Sea, authorities said. And Thailand said it arrested 36 Vietnamese fishermen and confiscated four boats on Tuesday, suspecting the fishermen of poaching in Thai waters.
But China operates the largest fleet of commercial fishing vessels in the world, and is also the number one source of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing in Asia, according to the IUU Fishing Index put out by the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.
Even during the period of the ban, the moratorium seemed only to push Chinese fishermen further out rather than reel them in.
Two trawlers were caught illegally fishing a protected species in Gabonese waters on Aug. 8, according to Sea Shepherd. Both trawlers are flagged by China and operated by Dalian International Fisheries, according to the International Maritime Organization database.
Also, a fleet of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels have been operating near Ecuador’s Galapagos marine reserve since late July, prompting the U.S. State Department to issue a statement in support of Ecuador’s maritime law enforcement agencies and condemned China’s fishing activity in the area, which threatens endangered species of shark. Ecuador reportedly reached an agreement with China for the flotilla to leave, but ship-tracking data shows the ships are still there.
Satellite imagery and ship-tracking data also showed that during the ban, Chinese fishermen and maritime militia were also active in areas of the Spratlys not covered by the moratorium, but plagued by over-fishing. Chinese maritime militia were spotted in Subi Reef, near the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, just last week.