Global impact of illegal fishing and human rights abuse in China’s vast distant water fleet revealed
Apr 05, 2022

Global impact of illegal fishing and human rights abuse in China’s vast distant water fleet revealed

By EJF Staff

China’s distant water fleet ­– by far the world’s largest – is rife with human rights abuses and illegal fishing, and targets endangered and protected marine life across the world’s ocean, EJF’s new report reveals. In the most comprehensive analysis of the fleet to date, EJF shows that China’s state subsidies have allowed the grossly overcapacity fleet to exploit the waters of developing nations that rely on marine resources for livelihoods and food security.

This destruction is enabled by the often total lack of transparency across global fisheries, says EJF, and to prevent it, all nations must implement freely available, cost-effective measures that would give all stakeholders much greater control over their seafood supply chains.

China’s distant water fleet operates across the entire globe with consequences that impact almost every nation, shows EJF’s report ­– which cross-references data from the Chinese government with illegal fishing records and testimony from crew.

Illegal fishing

Illegal fishing is rife among the fleet, EJF found. Testimony from over a hundred crew aboard 88 vessels showed that 95% reported witnessing some form of illegal fishing.

Almost all the crew interviewed said that sharks were illegally finned on their vessels, a cruel and wasteful process where the more valuable fins are removed, and the shark is thrown overboard to die. Smartphone footage obtained by EJF also shows seals being clubbed to death and beheaded, with over a third of the interviewees reporting that protected species such as turtles and seals were caught and killed on their vessels. Around a fifth of the crew also said dolphins were routinely slaughtered as bait for sharks.

“It did not matter whether the shark was big or small, even babies inside the sharks' belly - we took them all. I guess you could call it a ‘devil vessel’ because it really took everything," said one crew member.

Human rights abuse

These destructive practices are enabled not only by harmful state subsidies – amounting to around US$ 1.8 billion – but also by gross human rights abuses of migrant crew. These workers spoke of physical and verbal abuse, gruelling hours, inadequate food and water, and forced labour at the hands of Chinese captains and senior crew.

The testimony and footage EJF received revealed Indonesian crew being beaten with metal pipes and threatened with knives by senior Chinese crew. Overall, 58% of the crew EJF interviewed said they had witnessed or experienced physical violence and 85% reported abusive working and living conditions. “I was being restrained and hit. They beat every part of my body,” said one Indonesian man. In addition, almost all the crew (97%) interviewed said they had experienced some form of debt bondage or had documents such as passports confiscated.

Opaque corporations

As well as offenses carried out at sea, the report examines the corporations involved in these infringements – mapping the complex onshore corporate structures of the fleet. In Ghana, for instance, at least 90% of the nation’s industrial trawl fleet is suspected to be owned by Chinese corporations who use local ‘front’ companies to register as Ghanaian and circumvent the law. Many of these vessels have been repeatedly associated with illegal fishing.

Where the fish caught by the fleet ends up is also shrouded by opacity, making it difficult or impossible to trace supply chains. However, what is known is that a number of Chinese distant-water vessels are licensed to export to Europe, and China is the US’s largest seafood trading partner.

Exploitation of developing nations’ waters

The Chinese fleet has become a substantial presence in many developing countries and regions that have limited capacity for monitoring fishing vessels yet are heavily dependent on fishing for local food security and livelihoods, the report shows.

Africa stands out, accounting for 78.5% of the Chinese government-approved fisheries projects in other countries' waters. In West Africa, an area known to be rife with illegal fishing, the Chinese bottom trawl fleet catches an estimated 2.35 million tonnes of seafood every year – by some estimates, around half of China's total distant-water catch – valued at over US$ 5 billion. Many fish populations in Africa are heavily exploited, to the point of possible collapse, which would spell disaster for impoverished coastal communities.

Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said: “These state-subsidised vessels are ravaging the ocean, committing human rights abuses and driving environmental injustice, all while hiding behind complex onshore corporate structures preventing those responsible from being held to account. These findings highlight the overarching failure of the Chinese government to effectively control and regulate its distant-water fleet, but also reveal a wider international problem: the shocking lack of transparency across the sector. As well as China controlling its fleet, any nation importing fish caught by Chinese vessels should be demanding full transparency along the whole supply chain. That is the only way we can be sure that we, as consumers, don’t end up eating slave-caught fish and driving the destruction of our ocean.”


Notes for editors

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EJF can offer additional footage, photographs and the potential opportunity to interview crew members who have worked aboard these vessels as part of your coverage.

Key findings

  • A high proportion of the 116 crew interviewed had seen some form of illegal fishing. For example, 95% of those spoken to had seen sharks being finned, 22% and 38% had seen dolphins and false killer whales killed respectively, and 34% reported seeing other protected species including seals and turtles being caught and killed.
  • According to the data analysed, fishing without a licence or authorisation is the most common recorded illegal fishing incident, constituting 42% of the total. Using prohibited gear and the capture of prohibited species are the next highest ranking offences, at 11.5% and 10.3% respectively.
  • Interviews conducted by EJF with 116 Indonesian crewmembers who have worked on vessels belonging to the Chinese distant water fleet indicate that 99% have experienced or witnessed wages being deducted or withheld, 97% have experienced some form of debt bondage/confiscation of guarantee money and documents, 89% have worked excessive overtime, 85% reported abusive working and living conditions, 70% experienced intimidation and threats, and 58% have seen or experienced physical violence.


  • This report is informed primarily through a rigorous review of data published by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) detailing its various offshore fishery projects, i.e. vessels approved by MARA to operate outside of Chinese waters; and information retrieved from the Criminal Record of Fishing Vessels and associated platform ‘Spyglass’. This is the first such published analysis of official MARA data on its distant water fleet, supplementing reports produced elsewhere that have relied on the use of non-governmental sources such as satellite data to estimate the size and location of the Chinese distant water fleet.