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Exposing the Human Impacts of China’s Distant Water Fishing Fleet

China’s distant water fishing fleet has inflicted immeasurable harm on the global community, in particular nations across the global south. The global fish stock is in decline as China amasses a distant water fishing fleet that dwarfs its competition.

The United Nations estimates that almost 90 percent of the global marine fish stocks are depleted, over exploited or fully exploited, which is largely due to the devastating fishing practices of China’s fleet.

A single ship from China’s fleet catches the same number of fish in one day as many countries’ fleets previously caught in a year. Their bottom trawlers indiscriminately deplete fisheries of all fish species, regardless of value or age, while destroying the habitats needed to replenish their numbers. These practices push artisanal fishermen out of business, which in turn has led to rising levels of piracy.

China’s fleet directly contributes to the world hunger crisis; by removing up to 75% of the fish in a region, local communities are deprived of a much-needed protein source, resulting in mineral deficiencies.

Even more devastating are the direct linkages between China’s fleet and modern-day slavery. The widespread reports of physical and mental abuse aboard Chinese fishing vessels include verbal insults, being forced to work for up to three days without rest or food, being forced to drink polluted water, and physical attacks.

The captains of these Chinese fishing vessels place profit over the health and well being of their crew, depriving crew members required medical treatment after these abuses due to the lost fishing hours that would require. This has led to numerous reports of crew member deaths.

Figure 1. Lives lost due to China’s distant water fishing fleet’s inhumane practices. Sources: various social media posts.

China’s business practices also negatively impact local governments. To circumvent bans on fishing in national waters, Chinese businesses use a network of shell companies to create the perception that the vessels are local. When that fails, they bribe local officials to obtain the necessary fishing rights. In parallel, the Chinese government invests heavily in these nations to ensure their natural resource access. Local governments then fear negative investigations of or denying requests from Chinese businesses will result in the loss of this investment resource, resulting in officials turning a blind eye to their illegal practices.

Figure 2. Chinese companies use deceptive practices such as shell companies to circumvent laws barring international fishing in domestic waters. Sources: news media and corporate records.

These practices are subsidized by Beijing, with many private fishing companies maintaining direct ties to senior government officials. 

What can be done to stop these devastating practices? By documenting Chinese predatory and transactional practices while engaging with foreign nations, we can ensure national leaders understand the potential fallout from their partnerships. 

By raising awareness of pending deals with the Chinese government or businesses at a local level, populations can advocate to their governments to halt negotiations before these negative impacts are felt. In both of these areas, OMEN can help. 

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