Fishing in international waters has become a 24-7 operation. A single country has accounted for about 80 percent of the fishing in the international waters off Argentina, Ecuador and Peru this year. The culprit is not a South American country. It’s China.

            It was pointed out to me that Chile should be included in this list but it was probably left out because Chile has a far more effective navy and can thus patrol its waters. Chile has also led the world in the public sharing of vessel tracking data. Public sharing will help improve surveillance of Chile’s extensive offshore marine protected areas including Moto Motiru Hiva/Sala y Gómez, Rapa Nui/Easter Island, Juan Fernández Islands, and the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park. Unauthorized vessels and those with a history of non-compliance, mainly China, can now be identified more easily and prioritized for inspections, while vessels that turn off tracking devices can be held accountable when they come into port.       

     In recent years, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels have begun to operate almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, off the coast of South America. The ships move with the seasons, from Ecuador to Peru to Argentina. China has focused on these faraway waters after depleting fish stocks closer to its own shores. It is now engaged in depleting other countries’ stock, apparently with impunity.

     South America is not the only area to fall under the ravenous hunger of Chinese fishing fleets. I know from personal discussions with governments in the Caribbean that Chinese fishing fleets have decimated their off-shore waters and reefs. A mother ship shows up and its satellite smaller fishing boats literally demolish local fishing industries, often in one sweep. The mother ship is serviced by a shuttle fleet from China, which allows them to stay “on station” until there are no more fish and, in many cases, no more fish habitats left. The Islands do not have the resources to police this “theft” of their natural resources nor the power to enforce a tariff.

     China’s fishing expansion is part of a much larger story, of course. As the world’s most populous country, and one with an economy that has grown rapidly in recent decades, China has a growing global footprint — economically, diplomatically and militarily. It needs an enormous amount of fish to feed its booming middle class, and China’s leaders have been willing to flout international law to service that appetite.

     China’s fishing around the Galápagos Islands has become a flash point. Ecuador’s government accused Chinese boats of fishing too close to Ecuador’s shores, and both local fishing crews and environmental groups are worried that China is depleting local fish stocks in this precious environment.

     “Our sea can’t handle this pressure anymore,” said Alberto Andrade, a fisher from the Galápagos, who has organized an effort to expand protections. “The industrial fleets are razing the stocks, and we are afraid that in the future there will be no more fishery.”

     China is also under-reporting how much fish it catches: Suspicious movement patterns suggest that some ships may be turning off their transponders to hide some catches.

     These issues apply to more than just the waters off South America. China had also expanded its fishing off the coasts of Africa and South Pacific nations, as well as Antarctica.

     As with many other exploits of China, including its actions in the South China Sea, Beijing seems to think no-one will, or should, challenge their expansionist policies. The current Chinese government apparently thinks it is their right to do anything they want.

     It is time the international community recognized the full potential, and threat, of Chinese policies, and do something about it before a third world war is necessary to curb their ambitions of world domination. Corralling the world’s fish stocks is only a drop in the bucket of their overall expansionist goals.

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