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Chinese fleet fueled by ‘slave labour’ is destroying West Africa’s fishing industry

the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based non-governmental organization, published a report this week on the destructive, largely unregulated and often illegal operations of China’s huge deep-sea fishing fleet.

A particularly disturbing chapter in the report deals with the detrimental impact of Chinese fishing on West African countries, where entire coastal communities are teetering on the brink of economic collapse thanks to China’s rapacious practices.

The report, titled The Ever-Widening Net: Mapping the Scale, Nature, and Corporate Structures of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing by China’s Distant Waters Fleet, accused China of creating a huge fleet to fish outside of China’s own impoverished waters.

This Chinese Deep Sea Fishing Fleet (CDWF) uses “destructive practices such as bottom trawling and the use of forced, bonded and slave labor and trafficked crews” to steal huge harvests of fish from communities along the African coast.

The EJF blamed “a lack of transparency and opacity in seafood supply chains, limited monitoring, control and surveillance capacity, poor governance and corruption” for allowing these practices to continue.

The report took a negative view of offshore fleets in general, but singled out China for its “size and global reach” and its penchant for overfishing in vulnerable regions like the African coast.

The most alarming case study of Chinese practices is that of Ghana, where Chinese industrial fishing has so depleted stocks that Ghanaian fishermen are returning home with empty boats and have no choice but to buy back their own local fish to Chinese companies. This situation is so common that Ghanaians have a word to describe it: saiko.

China has moved into Ghana so aggressively that the EJF has estimated that almost 90% of the local trawler fleet is now controlled by Chinese companies, operating through Ghanaian front companies. Ghana’s coastal canoe fishermen can hardly hope to compete with these trawlers; According to the EJF, more than 70% of local fishermen say their living conditions have deteriorated over the past five years, and half of them say they “did not have enough food during of the last year”.

An Indonesian fisherman receives a bag from another boat at a local fishing port near the coast of Keelung September 28, 2015, as Typhoon Dujuan approaches Taiwan. (Photo credit should read SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

The report found that 70% of canoe fishermen said their gear had been damaged by close encounters with the trawlers. Some report being chased away from trawlers with “threats and abuse”.

The report accuses Chinese trawlers of deliberately targeting small fish populations near the shore and wiping them out by catching juvenile fish before they have a chance to reproduce. This leaves local communities no choice but to engage in saiko trade consisting in buying frozen fish caught by the Chinese in deeper waters, inaccessible to canoes.

The impact of these activities on coastal communities is catastrophic. EJF noted that Ghanaian women, who usually deal with the shore-based canoe fishing business, are increasingly turning to prostitution because fishermen are returning home empty-handed.

The report notes that other human rights abuses by the CDWF are “becoming apparent” as the fleet comes under increased international scrutiny. In May 2021, US Customs and Border Protection banned imports from Chinese company Dalian Ocean Fishing because it allegedly abused Indonesian migrant workers on board its vessels.

The EJF interviewed Indonesian crew members who reported “physical abuse, intimidation and threats, salary deductions and deductions, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions and overtime excessive”.

On board a particularly notorious Chinese vessel, the Indonesian crew said they shared a toilet between 22 men, had their passports confiscated and were forced to eat “fish that was otherwise used as bait ‘hunted with’ poorly treated salt water”.

The Indonesians also said that the Chinese crew beat them on a hellish voyage that lasted 13 months because the ship was able to transfer its catches and receive supplies at sea. Four Indonesian crew members of this ship died, one of them aboard the ship after the captain refused to return to port for medical treatment.

Ghanaians who worked on Chinese ships reported similar abuses, as well as “squalid” accommodation, “food with very little nutritional value” and “barely drinkable water” that frequently caused illness.

“Illegal fishing and overcapacity in the Ghanaian trawling sector are having catastrophic impacts on coastal communities across the country,” said EJF CEO Max Schmid. Voice of America News (VOA) Thursday.

The ever-widening net concluded with a call on the Chinese government to better monitor the activities of its deep-sea fleet, make vessel ownership more transparent and cooperate with international agencies on environmental and human rights issues. As VOA suggested, these pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears as Chinese authorities and state media adamantly deny any problems with their deep-sea fleet or industrial fishing practices.

The EJF report also offered advice to local governments and national authorities, including a plethora of suggestions to remove the screen of paperwork that China has built on its fishing fleet, more strictly enforce laws on licenses and enact regulations against the use of destructive industries. fishing equipment. A system that would allow foreign and migrant CDWF crew members to report abuse securely and anonymously was also recommended.

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