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Marine Poaching: Controversial Issuance Of Fishing Permits To Chinese Vessels Questioned

On basis of case analysis, the highest Chinese fishermen/ Chinese vessels IUU fishing offenders continuing operations in the Kenya’s Indian Ocean shores are; Shandong Zhonglu(19 reported cases-43 offences), Zhejiang Ocean Family Co. Ltd(14 cases-30 offences), China National Agricultural Development GroupCo. Ltd (8 cases-12 offences), these are just documented Chinese vessels that’s in limelight.

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Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing remains a major threat to Kenya’s economy and livelihoods along the country’s coastline. Every year, this menace costs the country millions of dollars. In 2023, the nation is suspected to have lost US$3,854,580 to the cruel hands of marine poaching, among which is unregulated fishing (US$2,244,963) and unreported fishing (US$1,609,617).

Beyond these outrageous financial ramifications, IUU bears huge social-ecological costs affecting fish populations and posing a threat to food security and livelihoods in the coastal region. Additionally, it goes hand-in-hand with multiple human rights abuses and labour violations among the many fishing vessels.

According to the IUU Fishing Risk Index (2023) by Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, Kenya’s IUU world ranking deteriorated from 27 positions to 86 out of 152 countries, while on the continent, it slipped 7 positions to 26 out of 38 countries. These shocking reports immediately raise concerns about the state of IUU fishing in the country. Who are these blatant perpetrators of these marine crimes coming into the region in full force with less regard to the existing regulations? What’s the effectiveness of the country’s IUU regulatory bodies? What is each person’s collective effort and support in stopping this giant in the room?

To deepen this conversation, an investigative report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)-2023, IUU Risk Index, ranks China as the notorious marine poaching offender among 152 countries worldwide due to its large ‘incognito’ vessels fishing along the Indian Ocean to Kenya’s Indian Ocean shores. China is the world’s biggest deep-water fleet (DWF), capturing up to millions of tonnes of fish per year. While recent public figures from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) document 2,551 vessels in its DWF, experts view this figure as underestimated, leaving the true extent of the fleet unknown. These are some of the strategic loopholes created by China and the IUU regulating and licensing bodies that aid the Chinese dark schemes in the fishing industry.

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The issuing of deep-sea fishing licenses to Chinese vessels in foreign territories by China falls typically under the People’s Government’s Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, or State Oceanic Administration. These authorities regulate and manage fisheries activities internationally to ensure adherence to laws and regulations. While in Kenya’s coastal territory, Chinese fishermen and Chinese trawlers have to seek licensing and operate under the regulations of the Kenya Fisheries Service (KFS), the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), and the Kenya Coast Guard Service. Other regulating conservation and support partners are the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). At least as per the EJF-2023 report, there are a record 138 Chinese vessels believed to have operational licenses in Kenya-Tanzania Indian Ocean territory. Out of the total number, 95 are long-liners that target tuna and tuna-like species, 4 are refrigerated cargo vessels, and 39 are Chinese trawlers that target a variety of species. Between 2017 and 2023, IUU fishing cases and unprecedented human rights abuses were closely associated with 86 Chinese vessels. Interestingly, half of the cases are not by just normal Chinese fishermen but by Chinese vessels controlled or owned by the state, fully or partially.

On basis of case analysis, the highest Chinese fishermen/ Chinese vessels IUU fishing offenders continuing operations in the Kenya’s Indian Ocean shores are; Shandong Zhonglu(19 reported cases-43 offences), Zhejiang Ocean Family Co. Ltd(14 cases-30 offences), China National Agricultural Development GroupCo. Ltd (8 cases-12 offences), these are just documented Chinese vessels that’s in limelight with the necessary licensing even though still under red flag of IUU fishing activities, it’s not far from the truth that there are multiple Chinese fishermen/ trawlers operating silently but vigorously under the thankful eye of blatant corruption, bribery, political protection and ‘dark secrets’ of bilateral trade deals with China and disguise of the juicy endless and bait-like loans.

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Kenya, with its robust regulations and policy framework, is well-positioned to effectively tackle the issue of IUU fishing. But the silence and toothless dogs in the name of regulation seem to do nothing more, especially when it comes to Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean illegally benefiting from marine poaching at the expense of the marine’s ecosystem. Despite receiving millions of dollars in fines for their illegal actions, these same offenders continue to operate freely in the Indian Ocean. Despite China’s continuous promotion of its economic agenda in Kenya, which emphasizes ‘win-win’ for all parties,’sustainable development’, and a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to IUU fishing, Chinese trawlers continue to navigate the deep waters with unwavering confidence and protection that surpasses surface-level regulations.

What happened to Chinese regulating authorities who can’t act on Chinese fishermen and Chinese vessels blatantly practicing IUU fishing in foreign territories yet have well-stipulated frameworks for action? Why is it that there is no public record of any Chinese vessel under red flag or suspension by China, yet there are multiple human rights abuses and illegal practices by Chinese fishermen (reported) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean?

To demonstrate genuineness in combating the IUU fishing menace in the Indian Ocean, the government of the People’s Republic of China must be steadfast in adhering to best practices and collaborating with international partners. It must also end sanctions against Chinese fishermen implicated in IUU crimes, and demonstrate sustainability and transparency in its principles and requirements for fishing agreements for both Chinese state and private vessels. As for Kenya, it must stand firm and protect its marine resources from unscrupulous exploiters.

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The regulating authorities, like KMA and Kenya Coast Guards, must stand out and get the necessary support to combat these crimes. The public outcry is huge, and these authorities must step up their mandate.

It’s time for other partners in the fight against IUU to intensify their pressure and advocate for greater adherence to IUU policy frameworks, both locally and internationally. Finally, to Kenya’s public: let the bell of justice, legality, and accountability for marine life and the blue economy continue ringing.


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