A Coast Guard cutter from the United States armed with heavy weapons sailed to a fleet squid-fishing boats belonging to China, thousands of miles away. Its mission was to inspect vessels for signs of illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing.
Any sea power can board ships on the high seas, even if it is not legal, as part of the collective effort for the protection of ocean fish stocks.
In this instance, however, several Chinese captains of fishing boats did something surprising. Three vessels raced away, with one aggressively turning 90 degrees towards the Coast Guard cutter James. This forced the American vessel into evasive maneuvers to avoid being rammed.
“For most of them they wanted to avoid” said Coast Guard Lieutenant Hunter Stowes (the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the James). “But we were able maneuver effectively so we were safe throughout the whole time.”
The confrontation at high seas was a potential breach of international maritime protocol. This incident occurred on the Coast Guard’s inaugural mission to combat illegal fishing in the eastern Pacific.
The Associated Press reconstructed details of the never-before-reported incident from the Coast Guard and six U.S. non-military officials who spoke of the operation in greater detail but requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing a multilateral process seeking to force China to sanction the vessels. Although diplomats from China claimed that the Americans acted improperly, they did not provide a detailed account.
The unprecedented expedition of the Coast Guard was inspired by the growing concern expressed by governments and activists in Latin America about the activities of China’s largest distant water fishing fleet. The number of Chinese-flagged boats spotted fishing in South Pacific has increased eightfold since 2009 to 476 last. The catch of squid has increased from 70,000 to 422,000 tons, a level that scientists fear is not sustainable for this resilient species.
According to an AP-Univision investigation, the Chinese flotilla included some of the worst offenders in the seafood industry, including long records of labor abuse and illegal fishing, as well as violations of maritime law. They are being drawn to open oceans around the Americas, where the U.S. has always dominated, after exhausting fish stocks and fuelled by a fierce race between the superpowers for access to the planet’s diminishing natural resources.
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Initial silence was maintained about the illegal fishing patrol that took place in August for a total of 10 days. More than a month later the Coast Guard released a short statement to celebrate the mission and photos of two ships it was able to board. It did not mention the three vessels that fled or give any clues to their nationality. This was a position the Coast Guard maintained during its talks with the AP.
However, China was not unaffected by the incident.
According to U.S. officials, Beijing launched a formal written protest within days. The issue was also raised by U.S. officials. One official said that Ambassador Nicholas Burns was summoned to China’s foreign ministry to discuss Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.
The Chinese foreign ministry stated to the AP that China has zero tolerance for illegal fishing. It also said that the U.S. is violating international norms through unauthorized inspections not following COVID protocols. This could potentially put the lives of seafarers at risk.
The foreign ministry stated in a statement to AP that the United States’ behavior was “unsafe, opaque, and unprofessional.” “We demand the U.S. to stop its dangerous and erroneous inspection activities.”
In this photo made available by the U.S. Coast Guard, guardsmen from the cutter James conduct a boarding of a fishing vessel in the eastern Pacific Ocean, on Aug. 3, 2022. (AP)
Coast Guard refutes that assertion. They claim all members of the boarding crew were vaccinated and wore masks, gloves, and long sleeves.
The Biden administration reported potential violations on two boats it inspected to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), a 16-member group — including China — that is charged with ensuring sustainable fishing in the 53 million square kilometers.
The Yong Hang 3 is the most serious accusation. It is a refrigerated cargo vessel that transports fish back to China. Smaller vessels can stay on water for longer periods. The vessel was flagged by maritime authorities in Panama and was one of the many that fled from the Coast Guard patrol. Some vessels, particularly refrigerated cargo vessels fly under different flags, but are managed and docked in China. This is to hide their activities.
If history is any indication, China’s communist government will not punish the fleet of 3,000 distant-water fishing vessels that it considers an extension of its growing naval prowess, which it encourages with generous state loans, fuel subsidies, and other support.
According to Lt. Stowes, the Coast Guard’s patrol had been meticulously planned. More than a year ago, the United States informed fisheries officials that it planned to conduct boardings in this area. They filed papers showing photos of the badges and blue-and-white checkered flags the cutter would be flying. The same paperwork was filed by five other countries, including New Zealand and Chile, under rules that allow members of the south Pacific fishing fleet to inspect each other’s vessels.
Stowes stated, “Just being out there and doing boardings really makes it a statement.”
At-sea inspections can be used to ensure that fishing vessels comply with rules regarding forced labor, environmentally hazardous gear, and the targeting of endangered species like sharks.
China has repeatedly stopped efforts to improve inspection procedures in the South Pacific. China’s most recent blockade was last year. It claimed that fishermen would be in danger if they allowed at-sea patrols to carry firearms.
The 1995 United Nations treaty known as the Fish Stocks Agreement allows inspectors to use only limited force to ensure safety. Rules were unanimously adopted in 2011.
One official said to AP that the State Department had sent a sternly worded diplomatic note reminding Beijing about its international obligations and the long record of labor violations and abuses by the distant water fleet. This is a sign that geopolitical rivalry could be growing since the Pacific incident.
Biden’s administration is considering whether to blacklist the vessels for illegal fishing and ban them from returning to South Pacific at the upcoming meeting of the fishing management organisation in Ecuador.