Four allied countries are working on a new high-tech method to combat illegal fishing, one of the Asia-Pacific region’s biggest problems at sea. The initiative would hold violators accountable and bring countries together on the cause.
The satellite surveillance proposed by the leaders of the Quad countries – Australia, India, Japan and the United States – would focus on China, the region’s largest fishing nation, and Beijing is already angered.
On May 24, the Quad — officially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — launched its Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness to monitor unregulated fishing in the territorial waters of several coastal states.
His initiative will use satellite technology to link existing marine monitoring centers and create a tracking system for illegal fishing. It would observe waters in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, both places where Chinese fishing fleets commonly operate trawls. The White House says the initiative will look for ships with their transponder systems turned off to avoid detection.
“I am almost certain that (China) will point to these types of plans as further signs that the US is taking some kind of anti-China stance,” said Herman Kraft, professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
China has already spoken out against it.
“The quad is fueling a so-called ‘China threat,’ and inciting discord between regional countries and China,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington. “This deliberately provokes confrontations and undermines international solidarity and cooperation. China is firmly against it.”
The Quad will need help from other countries in building the surveillance system, Kraft said. Taiwan has expressed interest in joining and Southeast Asian nations may follow, some analysts say.
Fish half the world from home
China’s deep-sea fishing fleet, which is the largest in the world and still growing, includes about 17,000 boats, think tank ODI said in 2020. At least 183 ships are suspected of illegal or unregulated activity, according to the ODI.
Chinese fishing vessels working in the South China Sea have formed an armed fishing militia that can help defend disputed island claims in the 3.5 million square kilometer waterway, observers said.
Illegal overfishing in the Pacific as far north as Hawaii has hurt island nations’ economies, Radio Free Asia reported in April 2021.
Chinese officials oppose the Quad’s surveillance because it exposes illegal acts and lets others “call them out,” said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst for defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
Success in detecting an illegal fishing vessel via satellite would allow countries that spot illegal fishing to track a vessel back to port rather than using Coast Guard resources to track it, said Gregory Poling, director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Singapore or the Philippines, for example, could track fisheries militia units in the South China Sea effectively and at relatively low cost, Poling said.
Once a boat is tracked from illegal fishing grounds to a port, governments can identify the vessel’s owner.
China has installed its own satellite-based maritime surveillance system in recent years, Poling said, and there is little it can do to counter the Quad’s surveillance of its fishing fleets.
“It can complain about it, but what will it complain about? That it has the right to illegally fish wherever it wants?” said Pole. “This is a bad game.”
China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs this year announced its own fishing moratoriums in parts of the high seas, including international waters of the northern Indian Ocean, state news agency Xinhua reported May 25.
Officials in Beijing will primarily respond to the Quad’s initiative by increasing verbal pressure on Quad countries, Davis predicted.
“They (China) can’t do much, but they can say much, so they will put a lot of pressure on the Quad members,” he said. “But really, the quad members are not forced.”