Hawaii’s commercial fishermen and the U.S. military have a potential threat in common — China’s fleet of government-subsidized ships that has been straying into more distant waters in search of seafood and more influence.

Local longliners have reported seeing increasing numbers of Chinese vessels near the islands, accusing them of overfishing and intimidating tactics.

Sometimes the ships are fishing, sometimes they’re making their way into the eastern Pacific and sometimes they’re seemingly just sitting at sea, says Eric Kingma, executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association.

He noted that a group of Chinese vessels seemed to be loitering north of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge last week. “What are they fishing for? I don’t know,” said Kingma. “But it’s an example of them being close to Hawaii and, we believe, getting closer.”

PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 29, 2016) U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Law Enforcement Detachment Team Boarding Officer signals a Chinese fishing vessel not to use a boarding ladder during a Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) mission with Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson (DDG 102). Sampson reports to U.S. Third Fleet, headquartered in San Diego, while deployed to the Western Pacific as part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet-led initiative to extend the command and control functions of Third Fleet into the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Jackson/Released)
A U.S. Coast Guard officer signals a Chinese fishing vessel not to use a boarding ladder during a Oceania Maritime Security Initiative mission with Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson in this Nov. 29, 2016 photo. Courtesy: U.S. Navy

In September, the U.S. Coast Guard said illegal fishing had eclipsed piracy as the most pressing security threat on the high seas.

“This exploitation erodes both regional and national security, undermines maritime rules-based order, jeopardizes food access and availability, and destroys legitimate economies,” Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz wrote of the shifting priorities.

But it’s not just the sustainability of fish stocks that’s raising concerns. The Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard warned in December that China “deploys a multilayered fleet” that includes “naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels” that it has deployed against neighboring countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.

Analysts have closely watched coordination between Chinese military and ostensibly civilian vessels for years in the South China Sea and some say Beijing could be using the same tactics to further extend its influence in the Pacific.

“The actions of China’s fishing fleet are integrated into a larger national effort,” said James Fanell, a retired Navy officer who served as the intelligence director of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.

A Growing Presence

During the first two months of 2020, the Coast Guard intercepted several foreign fishing vessels operating within the territory of Guam and Hawaii’s maritime borders known as “exclusive economic zones.” The Coast Guard said it was the first time it had done so since 2012.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched an investigation into the incursions, but the agency has refused to publicly confirm the nationalities of the vessels until after it submits its biennial fisheries report to Congress sometime this year. The Coast Guard referred inquiries about the incursions to NOAA.

In October, then-White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien announced plans to beef up the Coast Guard’s Pacific Island presence to more closely monitor illegal fishing, particularly by Chinese vessels.

Alex Gray, a former member of the White House National Security Council and current fellow at the American Foreign Policy Center, said that Chinese vessels have been straying into U.S. territorial waters, including Hawaii’s. But Chinese fishing activity can be hard to track.

International fishing companies often register vessels in other countries, a practice known as using “flags of convenience.” Kingma said Chinese vessels in the Pacific are frequently registered to Pacific Island nations, making them harder to regulate.

(Oct. 8, 2007) ONBOARD THE USCGC BOUTWELL - Boarding teams, from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, boarded the Fishing Vessels Lu Rong Yu 6105, 2660 and 2659. The boarding team quickly determined that all the vessels were rigged for high-seas drift net fishing and is currently escorting the vessels back into Chinese custody. The Boutwell is currently deployed as U.S. Coast Guard representatives in the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (NPCGF). This forum was developed to combat illegal fishing and increase international maritime safety and security on the Northern Pacific Ocean and its borders. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)
Chinese fishing boats operate worldwide, sometimes staying at sea for over a year and often traveling in large groups. Jonathan Cilley/USCG

International distant water fleets operate much differently than most American commercial fishing vessels. Hawaii longliners tend to spend no more than three weeks at sea catching fish before returning to shore with their catch.

Chinese trawlers may spend a year or more at sea. They operate in large groups, allowing them to catch huge hauls of fish that are transferred to large freezer ships that return to China, and often get refueled at sea.

Kingma said Chinese vessels, which tend to be much larger than Hawaii’s longliners, have also chased Hawaii crews away from tuna fishing areas. Hawaii fishermen allege that Chinese vessels made aggressive maneuvers near their boats, sometimes charging at them.

Taiwanese, South Korean and Japanese vessels also fish near Hawaii, and have been accused of flouting international fishing regulations and occasionally acting aggressively.

But China’s fleet has unique advantages. It’s the world’s largest and receives massive subsidies from the Chinese government to vastly expand the scale of its operations.

“These subsidies are extended for vessel construction for these Chinese government-affiliated companies,” said Kingma. “It extends to fuel subsidies, labor, other expenses, as well as transportation of shipping fish back to China.”

Food Fight

Beijing has been willing to foot the bill for Chinese fishing companies in part because fisheries along China’s coastal regions have been depleted due to heavy demand for seafood in the country.

While China’s economic growth has raised millions from poverty, Fanell points out that China remains particularly vulnerable to food shortages as it tries to feed 1.4 billion people. “They’re dependent upon food imports,” he explains.

But Chinese companies also sell seafood internationally. Kingma said that Beijing’s subsidies allow the commercial fleet to operate at low cost, undercutting Hawaii and other Pacific fishermen.

Fresh Ahi Poke bowl fish local fish. 22 may 2017
Fish is a staple food and plays an important role in the economies of many Pacific island and coastal communities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Seafood in U.S. supermarkets labeled as local isn’t always local, with many big box stores wittingly or unwittingly sourcing food through international companies with opaque supply chains. Kingma pointed out that wholesaler NORPAC Fisheries Export, which has a Hawaii office, is actually owned by Hong Kong-based Luen Thai Fishing Venture.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for overseeing fisheries in America’s Pacific island territories, also has expressed concerns that large-scale foreign commercial fishing is having a serious impact on American fisheries — particularly in American Samoa.

Mark Fitchett, a fisheries ecosystems scientist with Wespac, said that American Samoa’s longline fleet caught 5,000 metric tons of albacore tuna in 2007 but today barely brings in more than 1,000. He said it’s “no coincidence” that China signed recent charter agreements with nearby Pacific Island nations.

“Half of all South Pacific albacore (is) being caught by Chinese longliners, which dwarf U.S.-flagged longliners in size,” said Fitchett. “The increase in distant water fleet operations nearby, particularly from China, has led to a situation in which American Samoa is being deprived access to the fishery resource.”

‘It’s Not Peace, And It’s Not War’

Beijing’s involvement with the Chinese fishing fleet isn’t limited to subsidies. Chinese-flagged fishing vessels have seemingly scouted for the Chinese Navy and staked out disputed territory in the South China Sea, sometimes clashing with vessels from neighboring countries.

U.S. and Australian Navy personnel have reported mysterious fishing boats tailing them and in some cases even harassing them at sea. Lately Chinese trawlers have been involved in a series of disputes with the Philippines and staking out waters off the Korean Peninsula.

Security analysts call these “gray zone” operations. “It’s not peace and it’s not war. It’s not strictly military, but it’s not strictly civilian,” Gray explained.

Officers from the People Liberation Army Navy fronting Chinese navy ship Xian at Pearl Harbor during a day open to media. The Xian is one of 3 ships participating in RIMPAC. 2016 july 8
Chinese navy officers look on at Pearl Harbor during RIMPAC 2016. The relationship between China’s military and its fishing fleet is getting more international scrutiny. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gray said China’s vast fishing fleet is the “epitome” of gray zone operations because even intelligence officials with access to classified information aren’t sure where the fishing fleet, maritime militia and even the Chinese Navy itself begin and end.

“Some (vessels) are doing mapping, but some of them also have fishing equipment, some of them have cargo on them. They’ve created this ambiguity about the mission set of different vessels,” said Gray. “And that’s really I think the biggest concern for us is the lack of visibility and the lack of clarity about what are they actually up to.”

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