Biden swipes at China with memorandum to combat illegal fishing

Environmentalists and Western nations have increasingly attributed the problem to China. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - US President Joe Biden on Monday (June 27) signed a national security memorandum to fight illegal fishing, part of pledged efforts to help countries combat alleged violations by fishing fleets, including those of China.  

The White House said in a statement that it would also launch an alliance with Canada and the United Kingdom to “take urgent action” to improve monitoring, control, and surveillance in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The White House said the US also plans new engagement with Ecuador, Panama, Senegal, Taiwan and Vietnam on fighting IUU.

The United States identified the five “not because they are the primary offenders of IUU fishing but because they have expressed a willingness to work with the United States to combat IUU fishing”, an administration official said. 

US officials have vowed to introduce policies to better battle illegal fishing, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, as part of stepped up engagement with the region to counter China’s growing influence.

Some countries in the region chafe at China’s vast fishing fleet, arguing its vessels often violate their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and cause environmental damage and economic losses.  

Senior US administration officials told reporters in a briefing that the memorandum directs agencies to work toward “ending human trafficking, including forced labour... while promoting safe, sustainable use of the ocean.”

The Department of Labour, the Department of Defence, the US Coast Guard, and other enforcement agencies would engage with private and foreign partners to “investigate fishing vessels and operators expected to be harvesting seafood with forced labour,” the official said.

The effort was not targeted at any specific country, but the official said China was one of the largest violators.  

“The PRC (People’s Republic of China) is a leading contributor to IUU fishing worldwide, and has impeded progress on the development of measures to combat IUU fishing and overfishing in international organisations,” the official said.  

“The PRC has a responsibility to uphold these commitments as a flag state and actively monitor and correct... fishing fleet activities in other countries’ waters,” she said.  

A recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation said that China by far has the world's largest fleet capable of fishing in distant waters and that there have been frequent complaints of abuse.

The British advocacy group said that crew members from Indonesia and Ghana in interviews recounted Chinese captains imposing excessive hours without pay, meting out threats or actual violence and providing low-quality food that led to diarrhea and other maladies.

China says it is a responsible fishing country that has been cooperating internationally to clamp down on illegal fishing, and that it fishes in relevant EEZs according to bilateral agreements.  

“The US accusation is completely untrue and does nothing to protect the marine environment and promote international cooperation in sustainable fishery,” Mr Liu Pengyu, spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington, said in a statement.  

Earlier in June, the Philippines accused China of illegal fishing in its EEZ, a complaint backed by the US State Department.  

The US Coast Guard has said illegal fishing has outpaced piracy as the top global maritime security threat, and risks heightening tensions among countries vying for overexploited fishing stocks.  

US Indo-Pacific policy coordinator Kurt Campbell said in May that countries in the region were cooperating to step up patrolling and training efforts, as well as sharing technologies to track vessels engaged in illegal fishing that turn off electronic transponders.

According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), IUU fishing represents up to 26 million tonnes of fish caught annually.

IUU fishing occurs on the high seas and other areas within national jurisdiction and especially affects coastal rural populations in vulnerable areas. IUU fishing may also sometimes be associated with other crimes. 

The FAO said it works closely with other agencies, such as the International Maritime Organisation and UN Office on Drugs and Crime to counter IUU fishing and its associated illegal activities. 

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