This summer, as China fired missiles into the sea off Taiwan to protest House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, a very different geopolitical clash was taking shape in another corner of the ocean. Peaceful.
Thousands of miles away, a heavily armed US Coast Guard sailed to a fleet of a few hundred Chinese squid fishing boats not far from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Its mission: to inspect vessels for signs of illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.
The boarding of ships on the high seas is a perfectly legal, if little used, tool available to any maritime power in the collective effort to protect the oceans’ threatened fish stocks.
But in this case, the Chinese captains of several fishing boats did something unexpected. Three ships sped up, one turning aggressively 90 degrees towards the Coast Guard Cutter James, forcing the US ship to take evasive action to avoid being rammed.
“For the most part, they wanted to avoid us,” said Coast Guard Lt. Hunter Stowes, the senior law enforcement officer on the James. “But we were able to maneuver effectively to be safe all the time.”
Yet the confrontation on the high seas represented a potentially dangerous breach of international maritime protocol, one the United States considers a troubling precedent since it occurred on the coast guard. first mission to fight against illegal fishing in the Eastern Pacific.
The Associated Press has pieced together never-before-reported details of the incident from the Coast Guard and six non-military U.S. officials who spoke about the operation in more detail but requested anonymity to avoid undermining a multilateral process aimed at to force China to sanction the ships. While diplomats in China accused the Americans of acting inappropriately, they did not provide their own detailed account.
The coast guard’s unprecedented trip was prompted by growing concern among activists and governments in Latin America over the activities of China’s deep-sea fishing fleet, the largest in the world. Since 2009, the number of Chinese-flagged vessels spotted fishing in the South Pacific, sometimes for months at a time, has increased eightfold, to 476 last year. Meanwhile, the size of its squid catch has fallen from 70,000 tonnes to 422,000 – a level of fishing that some scientists fear may be unsustainable even for a resilient species.
As revealed in a AP-Univision survey last year, the Chinese flotilla includes some of the worst offenders in the seafood industry, with long histories of labor abuses, illegal fishing and violations of maritime law. But they are drawn to the open ocean around the Americas – where the United States has long dominated – after depleting fish stocks closer to home and fueled by an increasingly fierce race between the two superpowers to secure diminishing access to the world’s natural resources.
The illegal fishing patrol, which ran for 10 days in August, was initially kept silent. The Coast Guard, more than a month later, released a brief statement celebrating the mission along with photos of two ships it successfully boarded. But he made no mention of the three who got away or offered any clues about the nationality of the ships — a stance the Coast Guard maintained in its conversations with the AP.
But the incident did not go unnoticed in China.
Within days, Beijing launched an official written protest, according to US officials. Additionally, the issue was raised when US Ambassador Nicholas Burns was summoned by China’s Foreign Ministry for an emergency meeting over President Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, one of the officials said.
China’s Foreign Ministry told the AP it has zero tolerance for illegal fishing and said it is the United States that flouts international standards by carrying out unauthorized inspections that do not follow protocols COVID, potentially putting the lives of seafarers at risk.
“The behavior of the United States is dangerous, opaque and unprofessional,” the Foreign Office said in a statement to the AP. “We demand that the US side stop its dangerous and misguided inspection activities.”
The Coast Guard disputes that claim, saying all boarding crew members, in addition to being vaccinated, wore masks, gloves and long sleeves.
The Biden administration also reported possible violations found on the two boats it inspected to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or SPRFMO, a 16-member group — including China and the United States. United – tasked with ensuring sustainable fisheries in 53 million square kilometers of ocean.
One of the most serious charges relates to the Yong Hang 3, a refrigerated cargo ship used to transport fish to China so that smaller vessels can stay on the water longer. The vessel was among those that fled the Coast Guard patrol, disobeying direct orders to cooperate from maritime authorities in Panama, to which the vessel was flagged. To mask activities, some ships, especially reefers, often fly under other flags but are named, managed and moored in China.
Ultimately, if history is any guide, the Communist Chinese government is unlikely to punish a fleet of 3,000 deep-sea fishing vessels that it sees as an extension of its growing naval prowess and is promoting with generous state loans and fuel subsidies.
The Coast Guard patrol was meticulously planned, according to Lt. Stowes. United States warned fisheries officials more than a year ago that he intended to carry out boardings in the area and filed documents showing photos of the badges the crew would wear as well as the blue and white checkered flag the cutter would hoist. Five other countries, including Chile and New Zealand, have filed similar documents under rules allowing members fishing in the South Pacific to inspect each other’s vessels.
“Just being out there and doing the boardings really makes a statement,” Stowes said.
Inspections at sea are seen as an essential tool to verify that fishing vessels are complying with rules regarding the use of forced labour, gear dangerous to the environment and the targeting of endangered species such as sharks.
China has repeatedly blocked efforts to tighten inspection procedures in the South Pacific. The most recent obstruction came last year, when China argued that fishermen would be at risk if patrols at sea were allowed to carry firearms.
The rules passed unanimously in 2011 are guided by a 1995 United Nations treaty, known as the Fish Stocks Agreement, which allows inspectors to use limited force to stay safe.
In a sign of the possible escalation of geopolitical rivalry since the Pacific incident, an official told the AP that the State Department sent a stern diplomatic note reminding Beijing of its international obligations as well as the long record of the floats in distant waters when it comes to labor abuse and offences.
The Biden administration is also weighing whether it will seek to have the vessels blacklisted for illegal fishing and banned from returning to the South Pacific at an upcoming meeting in Ecuador of the fisheries management organization.
This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Goodman reported from Miami. Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.