In the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 1, 2020, the Robin II, a Honolulu-based fishing longliner, was confronted by a larger Taiwanese-flagged vessel about 115 miles south of Hawaii.
The American-flagged Robin II’s owner Jino Lee said the Chi Win No. 1688, also a longliner, aggressively charged his boat as members of both crews argued and shouted in different languages.
The Robin II, which is captained by Lee’s father and has five crew members, is 62 feet long and weighs about 69 tons, while the Chi Win No. 1688 has 30 crew members, is 138.5 feet long and weighs about 327 tons, according to a Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission registry.
As the Robin II’s captain best understood it, the Taiwanese longliner’s crew seemed to believe the Honolulu-based vessel had cut their fishing line. Lee insists that wasn’t the case.
Robin II’s captain got on the radio and told Chi Win No. 1688 that he had called the Coast Guard. The Taiwanese vessel eventually backed off, but not before crew members dumped paint on the deck and sides of Robin II. Repairs cost the Lees more than $2,500.
The confrontation offers a window into the bitter — and sometimes violent — disputes that have gripped fisheries around the world and are coming closer to Hawaii’s shores.
The Coast Guard also said that last year it intercepted several foreign fishing vessels operating within Guam and Hawaii’s maritime borders, known as exclusive economic zones, for the first time since 2012.
U.S. government officials have become increasingly concerned about the long-term consequences of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.
In September, the Coast Guard released its new strategic plan to combat illegal fishing. Citing a recent United Nations report, the Coast Guard estimated that 93% of marine fish stocks are now “fully exploited, overexploited, or significantly depleted.”
Coast Guard commandant Adm. Karl Schultz wrote that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing “has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat” and warned it could threaten geopolitical stability worldwide.
Robin II is a family operation. Lee was born in South Korea but came to Hawaii with his father as a child and grew up in the islands. They both worked at sea for decades, though Jino Lee now has another job on land as his father continues fishing.
Lee recalls fishing off Hawaii in the 1980s as a cutthroat business. He said back then it wasn’t uncommon for Hawaii fishermen competing over good spots to cut each other’s lines. Some boats would even shoot at each other’s fishing floats — and occasionally at other vessels, he said.
Through the Hawaii Longline Association the various fishermen mediated conflicts with each other and began pooling resources. “The Hawaii fishery has come a long way,” Lee said.
Over the years, Hawaii fishermen also shared the high seas with foreign Japanese and South Korean fishing fleets. But Lee says despite occasional friction, they all managed to coexist.
“We all communicate. We have to,” said Lee. “Everything about fishing is about the etiquette of fishing. You chop up other people’s line, they’re gonna chop up your line and you’re going to lose all your money.”
But he said the arrival of even larger Chinese and Taiwanese vessels in waters near Hawaii has changed the dynamic and competition has become even more aggressive.
Distance fishing fleets operate very differently from American commercial fishermen. They have much larger boats with huge onboard freezers that allow them to take back bigger hauls.
“Those vessels can stay on the fish much longer,” said Eric Kingma, the executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association. “If they’re seeing good fishing conditions and high catch rates they’re not moving, whereas our vessels are forced to come back home because it’s a nice chilled product.”
Many distance fishing vessels will also deliver their hauls to massive freezer ships rather than returning to port after reaching capacity. That allows vessels to stay at sea for months or even years and get refueled and resupplied at sea.
Chi Win No. 1688 spent years in the Pacific Islands according to Global Fishing Watch’s vessel tracking program. The organization’s database started tracking the vessel in 2017 while it was in port in Tahiti. It made short pit stops in Fiji and Tahiti over the years, spending months at sea and delivering hauls to transhipment vessels.
On the night of Jan. 24, 2020 it pulled up to the Yong Man Shun, a Taiwan flagged transhipment vessel, and spent nine hours loading fish until the early hours of the next day. A few days later it clashed with Robin II.
It continued fishing at sea near Hawaii, making another transhipment in March 2020 near Hawaii before venturing further south and making other transfers. It made one last transhipment stop in November before returning to port in Kaohsiung, where it has remained ever since.
But this industrial style of fishing has profound consequences on ocean ecosystems as well as on human rights and security.
Bubba Cook, the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Program manager for the World Wildlife Fund, said that environmental and security issues are inextricably linked and need to be addressed together.
A Navy veteran, Cook became passionate about fisheries in part because of experiences serving in the Pacific. He would often chat with local fishermen when visiting ports. Cook said that even 20 years ago they told him that they were catching less fish and that was forcing them to go to more distant waters to get a good haul.
He explained when human beings feel their livelihoods or their physical safety is at risk, they’re far less likely to care about following environmental regulations or respecting the rights of others.
“The same people who are willing to break the laws related to our fisheries would likely be willing to break the laws related to human and labor rights, as well as other things like illicit activities–drugs, arms, you name it,” Cook said.
This competitive environment has led to clashes and sometimes murder.
A 2012 incident at sea came to light after grainy footage on a cell phone left in a Taxi in Fiji was turned over to authorities. The video depicted a group of men in the ocean holding on to wooden debris as other individuals aboard a boat gunned them down with an AK-47.
International investigators eventually determined the killers were crew members of Taiwanese tuna longliner Ping Shin 101 and that the victims may have been rival fishermen.
Keith Davis, a fishery observer with ties to Hawaii, sent the video to friends about a year before his own 2015 disappearance at sea while aboard a Panamanian-flagged transshipment vessel. “Know that there is other awful stuff that happens out there that goes unpublished,” Davis wrote to friends at the time.
Human trafficking is a widespread problem on industrial fishing vessels. On some ships, crews are effectively working as slaves with low or no pay, sometimes well beyond their contracts.
“The sea keeps her secrets,” said Cook. “We’ve heard stories for years but no one had collated the incidents, no one had to make any effort because there was no regulatory requirement to do so on a national and certainly not an international level.”
The Hawaii fishery has also been accused of problems with abuse of migrant labor, though the Hawaii Longline Association says it has taken steps to address the problem. Robin II mostly uses an Indonesian crew, but Lee said his family has always made taking care of them a priority. “They eat steak and lobster,” said Lee. “We treat them like Americans.”
In March 2020, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which manages American fisheries in Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Island territories, sent a letter to the State Department condemning the “terroristic threatening behavior” of Chi Win No. 1688.
“The council condemns such abhorrent behavior by any foreign fishing vessel intimidating or threatening U.S. fishing vessels under any circumstance,” Wespac director Kitty Simonds wrote. She requested that the State Department “continue to follow up on complaints of assault by foreign fishing vessels on the Hawaii-based U.S. longline fishery and take appropriate diplomatic actions.”
When asked about the incident involving the Robin II, the State Department declined to comment on specifics. Kingma said that American officials told him merely that Taiwanese officials told the Americans that they “have a different understanding of the interaction” and that Chi Win No. 1688 was not subject to any penalties or fines.
Even so, Taiwan and other countries in Asia and the Pacific have been more closely scrutinizing their fishing companies and vessels with an interest in tax evasion by firms cashing in on unreported fishing and their ties to transnational crime networks.
In August the Taiwanese Coast Guard arrested Wang Feng Yu, a Chinese national believed to have been the captain of Ping Shin 101 who ordered the 2012 killings. Apprehended after the longliner he was most recently captaining docked in Kaohsiung, a Taiwanese court sentenced Wang to 26 years in prison for murder and for violations of Taiwanese gun laws in January.
The U.S. Coast Guard has been boosting its presence in the region and working more closely with regional governments. The Navy is also ramping up its support for monitoring fishery operations, lending greater surveillance resources and the ability to cover more ground.
The World Trade Organization recently began looking into banning fishing subsidies. The Chinese government, which maintains the world’s largest fishing fleet thanks in large part to such subsidies, has fiercely resisted the effort. Fishing disputes have played a prominent role in recent conflicts in the South China Sea.
The Chinese military maintains a “maritime militia” that uses fishing boats for surveillance and staking out disputed territory along with its Navy.
In 2020 the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese vessel was caught on video, leading to international condemnation. Filipino food security advocacy group Tugon Kabuhayan estimates that fishers in the Philippines lost out on 7.9 million pounds of fish from Chinese ships barring them from their traditional fishing grounds.
As industrial fishing depletes fisheries in Asia and the Chinese military stakes out more waters, more fishermen are forced to search for their catch elsewhere to make a living, with many venturing farther into the Pacific.
“It’s better that our politicians go take further steps and talk to these countries, and teach their countrymen, you know, the etiquette of fishing,” Lee said. “We’re not at war with each other and I mean, we’re all out there, fishermen trying to make a living.”
“If we keep on getting problems out in the ocean, now you’re going to get a lot of more problems,” he added. “It’s going to end up where you know, somebody is gonna get hurt, especially with the guns nowadays compared back to then. I mean how hard is it to get an AK-47?”
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