China is responsible for systemic human rights abuses and illegal fishing across the Southwest Indian Ocean: new investigation
Apr 11, 2024

China is responsible for systemic human rights abuses and illegal fishing across the Southwest Indian Ocean: new investigation

By EJF Staff

The Chinese fishing fleet is responsible for systemic illegal fishing and human rights abuses in countries bordering the Southwest Indian Ocean (SWIO), undercutting China’s claims of supporting sustainable development and thriving blue economies in the region, according to a new report published today by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). All of the fishers interviewed by EJF who had worked on China’s tuna fleet in the SWIO reportedly experienced or witnessed some form of human rights abuses and/or illegal fishing.

China’s distant-water fleet (DWF) is by far the largest in the world, with a growing reputation of perpetrating egregious human rights abuses and illegal fishing. EJF has conducted extensive analysis of China’s DWF over years, revealing incontrovertible illegality and abuse.

EJF has been tracking the Chinese fleet since 2020, and has conducted multiple investigations into its illegal and unethical activities, including conducting 318 interviews with former crew who worked on at least one Chinese vessel, 96 of which were in the last 6 months. However, the extent of criminal abuses in the SWIO stands in particularly stark distinction to China’s professed interests in the region, it says. This new investigation exposes four deaths which occurred on Chinese vessels between 2017 and 2023, including one suspected suicide of a crew member said to have thrown himself overboard.

The report is based on interviews with crew working on Chinese vessels in the SWIO and a wide range of secondary data sources, and is the first of its kind to examine China’s DWF in the region. Between 2017 and 2023, Chinese vessels were linked to 86 unique cases of illegal fishing or human rights abuses in the SWIO. Of the 95 tuna longliners currently believed to be authorised to target tuna in the SWIO, almost half are linked to cases of illegal fishing and/or human rights abuses.

Of the 44 fishers interviewed, 80% reported shark finning, 100% reported abusive working and living conditions, 96% excessive overtime and 55% physical violence. EJF also interviewed 16 fishers who worked on Chinese trawlers in Mozambique who similarly reported widespread illegalities, with 81% reporting physical abuse and half reporting the deliberate capture and/or injury of vulnerable marine megafauna.

Seafood linked to these vessels is potentially entering key international markets, including Europe, the US, Japan and South Korea; around 73% of the vessels suspected of human rights abuses and illegal fishing appear on the list of authorised exporters to the EU at time of writing.

Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested heavily in the countries bordering the SWIO, including building a range of ports and fisheries infrastructure. The terms of these investments are often opaque and, despite positive articles about Chinese investment in local media, concerns have been raised by civil society groups and local communities regarding the impacts on coastal communities.

This new investigation now shows that Chinese investment, far from benefitting these communities, directly and indirectly impacts the livelihoods of artisanal fishers through the illegal fishing perpetrated by China’s DWF.

Steve Trent, CEO and Founder of EJF, said: “Our extensive research raises a simple question: are these abuses at the direction of the government in Beijing, or is it failing in its responsibilities to manage its fleet? The weight of evidence is so undeniable that one or the other must be true.”

“We have revealed that China’s DWF is responsible for appalling abuses and illegal fishing in the SWIO. What our investigations show is that these abuses are not confined to one vessel or fleet; one geography or jurisdiction; but almost all Chinese fishing vessels and fleets in all geographies and jurisdictions we have examined. While the Chinese government portrays its investment in the countries bordering the SWIO as a win-win, the clear reality is that it is doing direct harm. This applies equally to coastal communities whose livelihoods are threatened by the activities of these commercial vessels, to the people suffering shocking human rights abuses on the same vessels, and to the SWIO countries saddled with corruption and debt from China’s investments.”

“It’s well past time for closer attention to be paid to China’s DWF and fisheries investments in the region by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, coastal states, market states, port states, flag states and, most of all, by the Government of the People’s Republic of China itself. At a minimum, this must include improving fisheries transparency to enable everyone to better understand who is fishing, how, where and for what. While the Chinese DWF is not the only culprit for illegal fishing in the SWIO, the uniquely shocking abuses it perpetrates across the region demand significant change now.”


Notes to editor

Read the full report here and watch the film here.

To protect the identity and safety of our sources, case studies of the individual vessels are not published but are available upon request.

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