China's Weaponized Fishing Fleet

Japan started recording derelict North Korean fishing vessels washing ashore in 2011, according to reporting by CNN’s Hilary Whiteman and Mairi Mackay.  Since then, 63 on average of the "ghost ships" have annually come ashore. Most are empty, but some contain dead bodies and occasionally a skeletal crew. Generally, the ships are old, underpowered, and lacking GPS.

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Initially, authorities assumed the vessels belonged to crews who were trying to defect from North Korea. Or "climate change" had caused the squids to move away from North Korean shores forcing the fishermen to travel dangerously far out to sea, where they died from exposure.

But by using satellite data, a team of researchers from the conservation group Global Fishing Watch pieced together the most likely explanation, as reported in last year's NBC article  "Ghost Ships":

China is sending a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing smaller North Korean boats and spearheading a decline in once-abundant squid stocks of more than 70 percent.

In March 2020, the United Nations received anonymous reports from two separate nations alerting them to illegal Chinese fishing within North Korea's exclusive economic zone. The statements included testimonies from a Chinese crew confirming their government knew of the illegal fishing in North Korean waters.   

The Chinese fleet operating in those waters became known as the "Dark Fleet" because they often turned off their transponders when entering North Korean waters, hiding them from land-based authorities for months.

Once Global Fishing Watch learned of the illegal ships, they began screening satellite images of the area and discovered the vessels were Chinese by their bright lights. Chinese ships deploy anywhere from 180 to 700 light bulbs mounted on long poles overhanging the water to attract squid, whereas the typical North Korean ship employs five to twenty bulbs. Seven hundred bulbs are the equivalent of the lights of an outdoor stadium.

More than 800 Chinese fishing vessels were recorded fishing in 2019 in waters off North Korea's coast, violating United Nations sanctions forbidding foreign ships in those waters. Global Fishing Watch believes these fishing vessels are likely "Chinese-owned vessels operating without official Chinese authority, with no registration, flag, or license ... and likely paying licensing fees to Pyongyang [the government of North Korea]." The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the accusations: "China has consistently and conscientiously enforced the resolutions of the Security Council relating to North Korea." But the fishing has continued sending the Korean fishermen into Russian and Japanese waters in search of squid.  

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The reported number of incidents of illegal fishing by Chinese ships has skyrocketed. Especially disturbing were the 340 Chinese vessels fishing near the environmentally fragile Galápagos Islands.

Blake Herzinger reported for Foreign Policy about the Chinese fishing practices:

Globally, economic losses from illegal fishing are difficult to quantify, but there is little disagreement that the overall economic loss totals tens of billions of dollars yearly, encompassing lost tax revenue, onshore fishing industry jobs, and depletion of food supplies. Much of that illegal catch comes from the exclusive economic zones of states such as Guinea, the Philippines, and North Korea that are impoverished and cannot exercise sufficient control of their maritime areas — the same states that Chinese fishermen often end up targeting. Fishery collapse due to overfishing in those areas poses a very real risk of food insecurity for millions in the developing world.

After years of overfishing, the Chinese have depleted the fish from their home waters, causing the government to subsidize its fleet for a planetary hunt for sea life and is devastating the livelihoods of fishermen worldwide by overfishing their seas. A study released last summer conducted by the University of British Columbia, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and the University of Western Australia concluded that 82 percent of the 1,300 commercial species of fish and marine invertebrates analyzed are suffering from overfishing.

Despite better technology, fisheries report lower yields yearly. According to Global Fishing Watch, over three billion people rely on seafood, making overfishing an international concern.

China dwarfs the other nations guilty of overfishing. The U.N. Fisheries Agency lists seven big countries that together capture almost 50 percent of the total number of fish caught worldwide. Of those seven, "China accounted for about 15 percent of total global fishing captures, more than the total captures of the second-and third-ranked countries combined."

The Yale School of the Environment reported: "Estimates of the total size of China's global fishing fleet vary widely. However, by some calculations, China has anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats, accounting for nearly half of the world's fishing activity."

The Barrel of the Gun

Chinese fishing vessels are an extension of geopolitical power for China, and according to the Maritime Awareness Project, many of the "fishermen" are members of the Chinese Maritime Militia:

The Chinese maritime militia (CMM) is an offshoot of China's national militia created in 2013 to support the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Trained by the PLA Navy, the CMM drills with both the navy and coast guard and [is] directed by the People's Armed Forces Departments (PAFD).

The CMM acts "to undertake the duties related to preparations against war, defend the frontiers and maintain public order; and be always ready to join the armed forces to take part in war, resist aggression and defend the motherland." While the CMM is not officially part of Chinese maritime law enforcement, it is often used in place of the military when enforcing the nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea to avoid allegations of use of force. This tactic of coercive gradualism seeks to intimidate smaller states by first using fishing vessels crewed by CMM members to harass foreign fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds. Should the countries defend these fishermen with their coast guards or navies, the PLA Navy soon shows up to escalate the situation into an international dispute.

The Chinese successfully employed this tactic during the 1962 and 1974 Paracel Island conflicts, also the 1995 Mischief Reef and 2012 Scarborough Shoal incidents….

The CMM often use fishing boats with reinforced hulls and water cannons for sinking foreign fishing vessels.

To help the CMM expand their territory in the heavily disputed South China Sea, China has built a series of artificial islands on reefs and shoals, followed by aircraft landing strips, harbors, and radar facilities. Once created, swarms of Chinese fishing boats overwhelm the foreign competition, as happened in 2018 at the Philippines-held Thitu Island. After the Philippine government initiated modest upgrades on the island's infrastructure, more than 90 Chinese fishing ships dropped anchor around the island to intimidate the Philippines. China is also in a quasi-war with Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

That China intends to exert its influence over the world is now obvious. For example, China has just signed an agreement with the Papua New Guinea government to build "a $200 million 'comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park' on the island of Daru," according to Jeff Wall in the Strategist. But he added: "A $200 million 'fishery' investment in an area not known for an abundance of fisheries but strategically as close to Australia as you can get surely raises questions about the real agenda," which is increasingly resembling world domination.

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