The leaders of Quad nations — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — are reported to be getting ready to unveil a maritime surveillance initiative to protect exclusive economic zones in the Indo-Pacific against environmental damage.
The aim, according to analyses appearing on Sunday, is to push back especially against massive and reckless deepwater fishing by Chinese trawlers in the region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Joe Biden of the US and Prime Ministers Fumio Kishida of Japan and Anthony Albanese of Australia at the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo on Tuesday (May 24). A series of other meetings are also lined up.
How will the proposed maritime surveillance system work?
The initiative will use satellite technology to connect existing surveillance centres in India, Singapore and the Pacific. This will help establish a tracking system to combat illegal, unregulated and unprotected (IUU) fishing.
The satellite-enabled dragnet will track IUU fishing activities from the Indian Ocean and South-east Asia to the South Pacific, a report in the ‘Financial Times’ said. The idea is to monitor illicit fishing vessels that have their AIS (automatic identification system) transponders turned off to evade tracking.
The move by the Quad security group is also seen to be aimed at reducing the small Pacific island nations’ growing reliance on China.
Why is illegal fishing seen as such a big threat?
The unregulated plunder of global fishing stock poses a grave threat to the livelihood and food security of millions of people.
Globally, fish provide about 3.3 billion people with 20% of their average animal protein intake. According to an FAO report, around 60 million people are engaged in the sector of fisheries and aquaculture.
While the economic loss from illegal fishing has been difficult to precisely quantify, some estimates peg it around USD 20 billion annually. In 2020, the US Coast Guard had said that illegal fishing had replaced piracy as a global maritime threat.
In the Indo-Pacific region, like elsewhere, the collapse of fisheries can destabilise coastal nations and pose a much bigger security risk, as it can fuel human trafficking, drug crime and terror recruiting.
Why is China in the dock?
The 2021 IUU Fishing Index, which maps 152 coastal countries, ranked China as the worst offender.
China is considered responsible for 80% to 95% illegal fishing in the region after having overfished its own waters. It, in fact, is known to incentivise illegal fishing with generous subsidies to meet its growing domestic demand.
According to ODI, a global affairs think-tank, China’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet has almost 17,000 vessels. “China’s DWF fleet is the largest in the world….vessel ownership is highly fragmented among many small companies and the fleet includes vessels registered in other jurisdictions,” it said in a report.
These vessels, which can scoop staggering amounts of catch on every single voyage, are often accused of pillaging ocean wealth with great sophistication and with little regard for maritime boundaries. China also uses them to project strategic influence and to bully fishing vessels from weaker nations.
According to a recent report by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation on the scale and nature of China’s distant-water fishing: “The burgeoning body of research that has explored the extent and behaviours of the Chinese distant-water fleet (CDWF) has unveiled the widespread, and harmful, economic, environmental and human consequences linked to overcapacity, high instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, destructive practises such as bottom trawling and the use of forced, bonded and slave labour and trafficked crew, alongside the widespread abuse of migrant crewmembers.”
“The Chinese fleet has become a substantial presence in multiple developing countries. Over a third of the authorised CDWF operations in 2019 and 2020 covered 29 specific EEZs in Africa, Asia and South America — the fisheries of many of the regions being characterised by limited MCS capacity and coastal regions heavily dependent on fishing for both nutritional and livelihood needs,” it added in its key findings.