The ties that bind: Sino-Africa partnership undercut by rogue Chinese fishing companies

Feature Story - 2015-05-20
Between 26 October and 21 November last year, a group of campaigners on the Greenpeace ship MY Esperanza, sailed through the waters of Senegal, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. The waters were hardly being patrolled as the region struggled with a massive public health crisis. What we saw shocked us: Chinese fishing vessels were committing a suspected illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing infraction on average once every two days.

A little history: Pioneers of China's distant water fishing industry (DWF) first came under pressure in the 80s, when the industry was in its fledgling stages- there was nowhere to fish, as all the important fertile fishing grounds had already been claimed. It was during this time that China’s ships first turned to the seas of West Africa. 30 years later, that fleet has grown to 462 vessels, totaling approximately a fifth of China’s total DWF global power.

After 15 years of exposing illegal and destructive fishing practices by EU, Korean and Russian fishing fleets in West Africa, we went to the region to examine how Chinese fishing companies were operating. What they discovered was at odds with the image of the “mutually beneficial partnership” that the Chinese government has been enthusiastically promoting and was in direct conflict with China’s renewed efforts to reign in its DWF industry.

Chinese companies have clearly been finding ways to circumvent these measures. From 2000-2013, at least 183 IUU fishing cases involving 114 Chinese flagged or owned vessels were recorded in West Africa. At least 60 of them (33%) were committed by China’s largest distant water fishing company, the state-owned China National Fisheries Corporation (CNFC).

Here is where the core problem lies. If China’s largest fishing company – which is supposed to lead by example – can’t play fair, what can be expected of smaller and less established companies? 

That’s not all. Further investigation shows that CNFC has also under-declared the gross tonnage (GT) of its 44 fishing vessels that operate across three West African Countries.

According to our latest findings, a total of 74 Chinese owned/operated fishing vessels have been operating illegally in prohibited fishing grounds and falsifying their gross tonnage in West Africa. That’s one in every six of the Chinese vessels that are currently fishing in African waters.

Chinese officials are proud of their efforts to combat illegal fishing with a series of ‘carrot and stick’ measures: heavy subsidies are provided, but they are subject to certain conditions, such as requiring vessels to use a Vehicle Monitoring System (VMS). Moreover, China has been putting a strong emphasis on developing relationships with Africa, most recently through its huge humanitarian aid efforts in Ebola-stricken West African countries.

These rogue companies are taking advantage of weak enforcement and supervision from local and Chinese authorities to the detriment of local fishermen and the environment. It is clear that the monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) measures that Chinese officials are most proud of, aren’t effective when it comes to regulating distant water fishing.

Illegal fishing is not the only problem brought about by the rapidly expanding Chinese DWF fleet in Africa. The fleet is growing without any clear policy or regulations pertaining to principles of sustainability and precaution and no clear management objectives for handling this expansion.

What’s more, China has begun to strengthen the sustainability of its domestic fisheries legislation in response to the serious depletion of marine resources at home. So this is already creating a double standard by allowing its companies to export to Africa the same destructive fisheries model that depleted China’s stocks.

African officials can be reluctant to call out Chinese companies that engage in unacceptable environmental practices because they do not want to jeopardize Chinese investment in their countries. Consequently, it is up to the Chinese government to regulate its companies to ensure that they take the highest initiative to ensure better environmental practices, rather than always findings ways to get exemption from local laws.

Fortunately the timing is good to improve what is a chaotic situation. The Chinese government has already started the process of reforming its existing Fisheries Code. It is crucial that China seizes this opportunity to reform its DWF regulatory framework, close the loopholes that have allowed Chinese companies to flout rules for decades and work closely with other West African governments to promote sustainable fishing practices in the region.

Rashid Kang is head of China Ocean and Forests campaign at Greenpeace East Asia. He can be reached at

 Full reports, "Africa's Fisheries' Paradise at a Crossroads" and Esperanza Expedition: