A U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies report, “Illuminating the South China Sea’s Dark Fishing Fleets,” sheds new light on the size and behavior of fishing fleets in the Spratly Islands.
The report reveals the presence of a large “dark fishing fleet” in the South China Sea and concludes that “most of these vessels serve, at least part-time, in China’s maritime militia.” But it overemphasizes maritime militias, reinforces the popular narrative that China is militarizing its fishers, and overlooks fisheries issues in the South China Sea.
Chinese fishers have begun illegally harvesting sea turtles.
For starters, it is unfair to view China’s fishing militia program in isolation. It is widespread practice to arm fishing vessels in the South China Sea. All the key South China Sea claimant states consider their fishers as crucial players in safeguarding their respective claims in the disputed waters. Vietnam, for example, has a large fishing militia fleet operating in the South China Sea, and in recent years the Vietnamese government has devoted substantial effort to expanding its militia fleet in the contested waters.
Next, those Chinese fishing vessels that hide their activities while operating in the Spratlys could simply be “black ships” (fishing vessels without relevant legal permits). In the late 1990s, to prevent overfishing and control its massive fishing fleet, China introduced tight control of fishing permits. However, a huge number of “black ships” have been operating in Chinese waters and beyond. It was reported that in 2017, Chinese authorities confiscated or banned about 30,000 “black ships”. These ships generally don’t have an Automatic Identification System, or if they do, it is usually switched off after the ship sets sail.
One of the key points of evidence for the maritime militia claim is the strange patterns of behavior displayed by the Chinese fishing vessels: “Chinese fleets in the Spratlys spend far less time fishing and far more time at anchor than is typical of vessels elsewhere”. These strange patterns could be, at least partly, for other reasons.
Firstly, fishers from Hainan and Guangdong, as well as groups from neighboring countries, have long engaged in reef fishing. With masks and breathing tubes, fishers dive in the shallow water around reefs to collect high-value species such as sea cucumber.
With the spectacular rise of Hainan’s giant clam sector in 2012, Chinese and other fishers have begun illegally harvesting giant clams and sea turtles. Each big vessel carries several smaller boats to enable divers to easily move around reefs while it is anchored. Although the Chinese government has more recently made an effort to crack down on the giant clam business, illegal harvesting continues and the black market flourishes with rising prices. Due to this crack-down, the vessels are also more likely to turn off their AIS transponders while operating.