ABOARD THE OCEAN WARRIOR, eastern Pacific Ocean (AP), at 3 a.m. After five days of plying through the high seas, it's now the Ocean Warrior that is surrounded by an atoll full of blazing lights, which overtakes the nighttime skies.
Galapagos artisan fishermen, tourist vessels and the local population cry for help and nobody listens. One of the pristine biosphere reserves is being plundered. Thousands of marine creatures are being harvested in an unsustainable way.
Filippo Marini, third officer, says "Welcome aboard the party!" as the spectacle fills the bridge of the ship and interrupts his overnight watch.
Conservationists get their first glimpse at the largest fishing fleet in the world: nearly 300 Chinese-built vessels have traveled halfway around the globe to catch the Humboldt squid, which is found in the Pacific Ocean's dark depths.Filippo Marini is the third officer on board the Ocean Warrior. He shields his eyes against the bright lights of several Chinese-flagged ships fishing for squid nightly off the coast of South America, July 19, 2021. Marini is an activist with Sea Shepherd, a Netherlands-based oceans conservation organization.
Marini furiously writes down the electronic IDs for 37 fishing vessels, which appear as green triangles on Ocean Warrior’s radar, while Italian hip-hop blares across bridge. Before they vanish, Marini frantically scribbles them onto a piece of paper.
He immediately notices several red flags. Two of the boats are now 'dark', their mandatory tracking device which shows a ship's location has been turned off. Others are also broadcasting two different radio numbers, a sign that something is amiss.
This summer, the Ocean Warrior was accompanied by the Associated Press and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision on an 18-day expedition to see up close the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet at the high seas of South America.
An international outcry caused the vigilante patrol to be initiated last summer by hundreds of Chinese boats being found fishing for squid close to the Galapagos Islands. This UNESCO world heritage site was home to many of the most endangered species in the world, including giant tortoises and hammerhead sharks.
Carmen McGregor (second officer on the Ocean Warrior) checks the radar system during the 18-day voyage of the ship to see up close the activities off the west coast South America.
China's move to remote areas is not an accident. China's overseas fleet, which is the largest in the world, has been pushed further away from home by decades of overfishing. Although the fleet is officially limited to 3,000 vessels, it could actually contain thousands more. It is a technical feat that billions of dollars in state subsidies have made possible, and it is a source for national pride similar to the U.S. Space program for generations.
Beijing claims it has zero tolerance for illegal fishing , and points out recent actions like a temporary moratorium high seas squid-fishing as proof of its environmental stewardship. China is being criticized by the U.S., Europe and others who have for decades sailed the oceans.
However, the Chinese fleet is so large and it recently arrived in the Americas, there are fears that the Chinese fleet could deplete marine resources. Illegal fishing could also rise if there are no effective controls. Recently, the U.S. Coast Guard declared that illegal fishing had overtaken piracy as its number one maritime security threat.
As negotiations begin on a new High Seas Treaty to regulate fishing, activists seek restrictions that would limit the illegal activities of fishermen. This could significantly boost international cooperation in the lawless waters that make up nearly half of the Earth's surface.
The AP saw 30 vessels close up, and 24 of them had a history involving labor abuse allegations, previous convictions for illegal fishing, or signs that they might have violated maritime law. These issues, taken together, highlight how the open seas around the Americas -- where China has been jockeying for influence and the U.S. long dominates -- have become a magnet to the worst offenders in the seafood industry.
16 ships were found to have either their mandatory safety transponders off or broadcast multiple electronic IDs. They also transmitted information that did not match the listed name or location. These discrepancies are often linked with illegal fishing but the AP didn't find any evidence of illicit activity.
Six ships were owned and operated by companies that are accused of forcing labor, including the Chang Tai 802, which was owned by an Indonesian crew who claimed they were stuck at sea for many years.
Nine more ships are facing accusations of illegal fishing around the world, while the Ocean Ruby, a giant fuel tanker, is being operated by an affiliate of a company accused of selling fuel to North Koreain contravention of United Nations sanctions. Another ship, Fu Yuan Yu 7880 is managed by an affiliate Nasdaq-traded firm, Pingtan Marine Enterprise. Chinese executives were denied visas to the United States for alleged human trafficking links.
"Beijing exports its overfishing problem into South America," stated Captain Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shepherd,, a Dutch-based ocean conservation group which operates nine well-equipped vessels including the Ocean Warrior.
Hammarstedt believes that China is responsible for plundering sharks and tuna in Asia. He organized Operation Distant Water after seeing how illegal Chinese vessels decimated poor fishing villages in West Africa. "With their track record, can we really believe that they will manage this new fishing industry responsibly?"
You can hear the roar of the mechanical fish jiggers pulling the catch out of the ocean's depths hundreds of feet before you reach the floating slaughterhouse. You can also smell the stench as the aggressive squid throw their ink sacs in a futile attempt to escape their inevitable fate.
According to all accounts, the Humboldt Squid is the most abundant marine species. Its name refers to the nutrient rich current that can be found off South America's southwest coast. Scientists believe that their numbers are increasing as the oceans heat up and their natural predators, tuna and sharks, disappear.
Biologists claim they have never been threatened by the industrial Chinese fishing boom off South America.
According to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), a 15-member intergovernmental group charged with the protection and sustainable fishing of this species, the number of Chinese-flagged vessels has increased 10-fold from 54 vessels in 2009 to 557 by 2020. The catch has increased from 70,000 to 350,000 tons in 2009, to now 358,000.
Fishing is almost exclusively done at night, when hundreds of lights are turned on by each ship to attract the squid-flying squid. Satellite images show the huge fleet shining brightly from space, as well as satellite images showing it.
As seen from space, the Chinese squid fishing fleet nightly. Images courtesy NASA
Hammarstedt said, "It's really like the Wild West." "Nobody is responsible to enforce out there."
Experts warn that even a species as abundant as squid can be overfished. It is not known how many Humboldt Squid are still around, but experts point out the past disappearances of squid stocks from Japan, Argentina, and Mexico as reasons to be concerned.
William Gilly, a Stanford University marine biologist, said that if you have a large resource that is easy to access, it's easy for people to believe that there's no limit to the damage they can do. "If humanity sets its mind to it there is no limit to how much damage we can inflict."
Gilly stated that squid also serve as a barometer for marine environments. They act as a biological conveyor belt, transporting energy from small carbon-absorbing plankton to larger predators like sharks and tuna and finally, humans.
A Chinese-flagged Jigger uses powerful nighttime lighting to catch Humboldt Squid in the high seas close to the Galapagos Islands.
Daniel Pauly, a well-known marine biologist, said that "the people who fish squid make themselves happy." He was referring to the phenomenon of "fishing down" the food web in which smaller fish were replacing larger fish on the dinner table. "But this is part the gradual degradation the ocean."
The journey to warm equatorial waters around the Galapagos was made by dozens of Chinese vessels. It began months earlier on the other side of South America where, every Austral summer between November and March of each year, hundreds of foreign-flagged Jiggers scoop up untold quantities of shortfin Squid in one the largest unregulated fishing grounds in the world.
The border between Argentina and the British-held Falkland Islands is where plunderers' paradise is located. It is a no-man's land of Jamaica-sized size, with no oversight, catch limits or fishing licenses.
According to Windward, a maritime intelligence company, satellite data from Windward showed that 523 fishing boats, mostly Chinese, were found just beyond the border of Argentina's exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles.
42% of those vessels had at least once turned off their safety transponders. The Galapagos saw 188 vessels, 14 of which were Chinese, that showed up in the area. They also went offline for an average of 34 hours each.
February 22, 2018, incident in which an Argentine Coast Guard pursued a Chinese fishing vessel that was moving within Argentina's exclusive Economic Zone.
It is impossible to determine what ships did while they were "dark". However, ships sometimes turn off their tracking systems in order to avoid detection when engaging in illicit activities. Over the years, Argentine authorities have seen many Chinese vessels fishing illegally in Argentina's waters. One such incident was when fired shots at and sank a trawler trying to ram it near a whale breeding site.
Large ships must use an automated identification system (AIS) to avoid collisions under a United Nations maritime treaty. China is a signatory to this agreement. It should be switched off only in the case of imminent danger, such as hiding from pirates. This is a serious breach that could result in sanctions being imposed on the vessel and its owner according to the law of the flagged nation.
China has not done much to curb its far-flung water fleet.
Because they can fish for years, the Chinese fleet can use giant refrigerated vessels or reefers to offload their catch at sea. These reefers are capable of carrying more than 15,000 cubic metres of fish to port. This is enough fish to fill six Olympic-sized swimming pools. The Chinese government heavily subsides giant tankers, which provide cheap fuel and add to the environmental burden.The Ocean Ruby is a huge tanker owned by an affiliate of a company accused of selling fuel to North Korea, in violation of United Nations sanctions. It was anchored off the coast of South America's west coast on July 23, 2021.
According to satellite data, which was analyzed by Global Fishing Watch , a group that supports sustainable fisheries, the 12 reefers that were active in the Pacific during July when the Ocean Warrior patrolled nearby, there were at least 196 encounters between fishing vessels and the reefers.
According to the U.S. International Trade Commission (a federal agency), nearly 11% US seafood imports in 2019 valued at $2.4 billion were from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The problem may be worse outside the United States.
Boris Worm (a marine biologist at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada) said that "we don't know whether things are getting worse or better." It all boils down to what you believe.
Pingtan Marine, along with its affiliates, have made accusations against authorities of illegal fishing in the oceans of the world. They are accused of fishing in South Africa, Timor Leste and Ecuador.
The company isn't a rogue outfit. It has China's second largest overseas fleet and trades shares on U.S. Nasdaq. In Fuzhou, it is also helping to build one of the biggest fish factories in the world. Zhou Xinrong (the company's chairman and CEO) appears to have built this fishing empire using massive state loans, generous subsidies and Communist Party connections.
"It's more than a fishing company -- It's practically an asset of the Chinese government," Susi Pudjiastuti said. She was Indonesia's former fishing minister from 2014 to 2019, and was praised by conservationists because she destroyed hundreds illegal fishing vessels.
According to C4ADS (a Washington-based think-tank that last year published a report about illegal fishing, fifty-seven of Pingtan’s ships, which includes three refrigerated carrier vessel vessels, were registered in China by China in recent years.
In its last earnings reports nearly a year ago, Pingtan stated that it had $280million in outstanding loans from China Development Bank and other state lenders. An 8% stake is held by one of the country's largest state investment funds. Pingtan received $29 million from China in subsidies for the construction of vessels during the first nine months last year, which is about one-third of its total purchases of equipment and property.
Two Pingtan affiliates in Indonesia were cited for various offenses, including falsifying catch reports, illegal transshipments and smuggling endangered species.
Those affiliates, PT Avona Mina Lestari and PT Dwikarya Reksa Abad are owned or managed by Zhou's immediate family members, Pingtan disclosed through filings with U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
According to an Indonesian court ruling, crew members of one vessel claimed they were "gang-beaten," struck on the heads with a piece steel and subjected "torture" from their Chinese supervisors. The Hai Fa, a Panama-flagged carrier ship, was taken into custody in 2014. It had 900 tons of illegally caught fish including endangered shark species. After paying a $15,000 fine, a lenient court released the vessel.Fu Yuan Yu 7880, a Chinese squid fishing boat, sails in the Pacific Ocean on July 18, 2021.
Zhou's wife is majority-owner of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a vessel that was captured in 2017 while transiting through the Galapagos Marine Reserve. It had more than 6,000 sharks aboard.
Another vessel belonging to Pingtan was spotted by AP. The Fu Yuan Yu 7880 was taken into custody by South Africa in 2016. After paying a fine, the officers of the ship were found guilty for possessing illegal gear and disobeying maritime authorities.
Pudjiastuti stated that the more information you have about these vessels and their equipment, the more difficult it will be to fall asleep at night. These South Americans should get up as soon as possible.
Pingtan did not answer all of the questions. The company stated in an email that Pingtan does not answer media questions.
Investors have withdrawn their shares from the company after scandals around Pingtan and its affiliates in the world.
Nasdaq warned in June that the company would be delisted if its share price, which fell nearly 80% over the past two years, does not rise above the minimum $1 threshold. Following the resignation of Pingtan's independent auditor, the threat of delisting was made. This warning questioned Pingtan’s ability to carry on business. Pingtan explained to the SEC that it had not filed any quarterly reports in nearly a year due to a "material flaw" in its ability conform to U.S. accounting standards.
Pingtan also has not commented on the surprise U.S. sanction for its top executives. Two U.S. officials claimed that Zhou Xinrong, CEO of the company, and his wife were among 15 people who had their visas revoked last year because they were "complicit in illegal fishing and human traficking. Two U.S. officials stated that the decision was made in the final days of Trump's presidency and specifically targeted abuse in the fishing sector. They spoke on condition of anonymity so they could discuss internal deliberations.
Some reforms have been initiated by criticism of China's far-water fishing fleet.
China last year imposed harsher penalties for companies that broke the rules. This included manipulating transceivers. They have also increased reporting requirements for transshipments on high seas, banned blacklisted ships from entering Chinese ports, and ordered off-season moratoriums to squid fishing on the high seas close to Argentina and Ecuador.
Peter Hamlin edited and produced the video
These measures are far from panaceas, but they represent a huge leap for the largest fish product producer and consumer in the world.
Tabitha Mallory, an expert on China's fishing policy at the University of Washington, said that she used to attend conferences and the officials would be in complete denial. "At the very least, they are acknowledging that their fishing practices are unsustainable. Even if this is just to counter all of the negative press they get around the globe.
China's Foreign Ministry, Bureau of Fisheries, and China Overseas Fisheries Association (an industry group) didn't respond to multiple requests nor did they provide a detailed list of questions.
China's remote water fishing fleet was established in 1980 as a response both to declining fish stocks and to the growing population. Mallory says that it has become a flourishing industry and an important part China's geopolitical push for access to the world’s diminishing natural resources.
The modern "Squid Museum" opened in Zhoushan this year. It allows visitors to take a 3D, adventure-filled journey with the squid from the ocean depths to giant jiggers, and then back home into squid rings.Children enjoy a multimedia display at Squid Museum, which opened in Zhoushan in eastern China in April 2021. This 2,600 square meter museum provides information about the history of squid and squid fishing. China's largest distant-water fleet is located in Zhoushan, an eastern Chinese city.
Pauly, a researcher, believes that much of the criticism about the Chinese fleet's fishing in the Galapagos is due to rising anti-China sentiment in America and growing concerns about Beijing's presence in an area traditionally considered Washington's backyard.
He stated that imposing high seas fishing restrictions, which could be discussed in the negotiations over a high-seas treaty would be more effective than bullying to curb China's activities.
Pauly stated that China doesn't do anything Europe hasn't done in the exact same way. "The difference is that China does everything big so it's easy to see."
The U.S. has begun to notice the risks of China's expansion in seafood companies and is looking to use their market power to increase transparency about the sourcing of squid.
A group of 16 producers and importers came together this year to create a common strategy for preventing abuse. Their focus is mainly on China, which accounts for approximately half of the $314million in squid the U.S. imported in 2019. The bulk of this squid was served as fried calamari at restaurants.
This initiative opens up a Pandora's Box for an industry that has flourished in the shadows with little attention to its supply chain. China's largest squid harvest is from the high seas. There aren't many controls as there are in coastal waters.
Alfonso Miranda (executive director of CALAMASUR), a group that includes representatives from the squid industry from Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Chile said, "Right now it's a perfect situation." You can do what you want, even force labor. Nobody says anything and there is still a market for your product.
Another option is to use technology such as AIS tracking data that is publicly available to consumers to allow them to identify the exact vessel that caught the fish, its owner, fishing history, and the exact location. This will allow the seafood industry to catch up with other industries, such as meat producers and the garment trade.Sea Shepherd provided this July 2021 photo. It shows the view from the Ocean Warrior bridge at sunset in the Pacific Ocean.
Ambassador Jean Manes, top civilian at U.S. Southern Command Miami said that traceability is the key word. "When consumers insist upon traceability, market responds."
Transparency has been a problem in the industry for decades.
No one knows how much China is fishing in the high seas. Critics claim that regional fish management organizations, which operate on the basis consensus, are unable to stop China from registering vessels linked to illegal fishing or abuse.
The Hua Li 8 was a good example. It was granted permission by China to fish the south Pacific two years after being the subject of an international manhunt. In 2018, the Hua Li 8 fled warning shots from an Argentine naval ship that had caught it illegally fishing. According to the Interpol "Purple Notice," four Hua Li 8 crew members were "slaves" and arrested by Indonesian officials.
In 2019, the ship was again involved in suspicious fishing activity, this time in the western part of the hemisphere. The ship was fishing near the edge Peru's exclusive economic zones and went dark for 80 hours. Global Fishing Watch also detected vessel movements in Peru's waters while the ship was offline.
Craig Loveridge, executive Secretary of the SPRFMO (the inter-governmental fishing organization), declined interviews. He did however, point out in an email that each member must consider the history of fishing operators before authorizing a vessel to fly their flag.
To address concerns, several South American countries proposed at the SPRFMO meeting this year a variety of conservation measures that are already in place elsewhere to address them.
Some ideas included banning transshipments at Sea, allowing countries on high seas to board vessels of other member states, and creating a buffer zone that alerts coastal states whenever a foreign vessel is within 12 nautical mile of their territorial waters.
Miranda stated that China rejected each proposal.
Mallory stated that China doesn't seem to be interested in expanding protection. They follow the letter but not the spirit of the law.
It is impossible to distinguish legal and illegally caught fish once the catch has been landed in China or any other warehouse.
Miranda stated, "This is the dark hole and having clarity there can be really complicated." There are many things you can do, but you must rely on reliable data right now.
ALONE AT SEA
The Ocean Warrior acts as a sheriff on the high seas, holding those responsible accountable in the absence of better monitoring. It is surrounded by many Chinese vessels, who are used to operating without fear of reprisal.Sea Shepherd provided this July 2021 photo. The Ocean Warrior is seen in the background. It circles a Chinese flagged vessel at the high seas off South America's west coast. (Isaac Haslam/Sea Shepherd via AP)
The sun is setting and the Chinese squid fleet wakes up in time to fish another night, Ocean Warrior's crew embarks on a dinghy for a close inspection of the Chang Tai 802. This ship was one of 39 suspected of being forced labor in a May 2021 Report by Greenpeace. Based on claims made by Indonesian workers, it is among the most dangerous.
Six men in their shirtless, all from Indonesia, gathered on Chang Tai's stern. They gestured friendlyly and seemed to be happy to have found another human being so far away.
The mood quickly changes when one man shouts over the engine, which the AP won't identify by name for safety reasons, that his boss is "not friendly" and asks, without the foggiest understanding, if the coronavirus epidemic that has ravaged the entire world has reached the U.S.
He says, "I'm stuck here," before looking glumly at the Chinese supervisor who orders them back to work. "I want home."
The Ocean Warrior returned with a megaphone for the open water exchange a day later. However, the Chinese supervisor quickly moved to block any conversation with English-speaking strangers. As the Chang Tai is about to pull away, the man throws a plastic container containing his brother's number written on a piece paper.
A man from Indonesia who was stuck at sea aboard a vessel that has a history of labor abuse allegations sends a message through a bottle.
The relative, who was reunited with his family in Indonesia, admitted that he didn't know much about his brother's recruitment or the terms of his employment. After graduating from a vocational school without other employment prospects, he left home three years ago and has only spoken to his family occasionally.
However, he is concerned for his brother's well-being and has recently asked the agency that hired him to allow him to return home. Greenpeace reports that another Indonesian sailor was on the same ship and complained of kidney problems due to poor seawater treatment. He was made to sign a document to avoid being marooned in Peru without any travel documents.
"I hope that he can return soon," said the man's brother. He was hesitant to say too much as it might compromise someone's safety. "And I wish he's always well."