Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region.
This is an on-the-record conference call with Jon Piechowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and David Hogan, Acting Director in the Office of Marine Conservation at the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Deputy Assistant Secretary Piechowski and Acting Director Hogan will discuss the threat posed by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing – and unsustainable fishing practices in Latin America. Each will give opening remarks and then answer questions from participating journalists.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Piechowski.
DAS Piechowski: Thank you very much and good afternoon. Thank you for joining me on this – for this important discussion. I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe during this pandemic.
Today I want to talk about how illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing – what we will refer to as IUU fishing – affects the countries and livelihoods in Latin America and the Caribbean. I also want to share what the United States is doing to support our partners to combat IUU fishing.
As you have probably seen in recent months, IUU fishing has drawn increased attention and is rapidly becoming one of our shared global priorities. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard released a new strategic outlook last month that elevated IUU fishing to the number one global maritime security threat, replacing piracy. But this isn’t just a threat that we read about from a distance. IUU and unsustainable fishing affect us right here in the Western Hemisphere. It threatens economic security, undermines coastal states’ sovereignty, it degrades the environment, and it weakens the global rules-based order.
The impact on our region has become all too obvious as media and the hemisphere have followed the movements of the massive fishing fleet that is now off the west coast of South America. When fleets such as this conduct IUU fishing or overfish, they endanger the health and sustainability of ocean resources and they have negative impacts on artisanal fishers, coastal state economies, and marine fauna.
IUU fishing actors operate in the shadows. The fleet currently in the region is primarily composed of Chinese-flagged vessels. The People’s Republic of China is not the only offender in the world, but they are a big offender and the preside over one of the largest state-owned fishing fleets in the world. And we know that this fleet has been engaged in suspicious and sometimes dangerous activities.
For example, nearly half of the vessels’ automatic identification systems have been turned off for several hours or days at a time, and on some occasions for weeks at a time. Some vessels’ identification have appeared to have changed while at sea, making identification and tracking more difficult. If you were following the rules, why would a ship not wish for its location to be known?
The answer to that question concerns us. Despite the People’s Republic of China’s claims to be a responsible fishing nation with a zero tolerance policy for illegal fishing, the PRC’s distant-water fishing fleet is regularly implicated around the globe in overfishing, targeting of endangered shark species, illegal intrusion of jurisdiction, false licensing and catch documentation, and forced labor. That is why we are suspicious of their behavior. These concrete concerns underline why we need to have a comprehensive response to spotlight bad actors, root out illicit behavior, and eradicate this threat to our collective prosperity.
As one of the worst perpetrators of IUU fishing in the world, the People’s Republic of China must be part of the solution. With this in mind, we are actively forging partnerships across the region to create collaborative, durable networks capable of monitoring this bad behavior and ready to act to push back on it. We are conducting outreach with regard to the People’s Republic of China’s fishing practices off the coast of South America, and along with our partners we are pressuring the People’s Republic of China to impose strong governance over their distant-water fishing fleet and to fulfill their flag state responsibilities.
With that, I pass the mic to an expert on the subject of IUU fishing, Mr. David Hogan.
Mr. Hogan: Thank you very much, Deputy Assistant Secretary Piechowski, and hello to everyone on the line.
The Department of State, working with our partners within the U.S. Government and internationally, is leading the fight to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. We have been working to tackle this serious problem, as DAS Piechowski outlined, in order to promote economic security and food security, and because of that, national security both for the United States and all of our partners. And the sustainable harvesting of living marine resources – the fish stocks in the ocean, because it’s a key component of coastal state economies and it’s a key component of the U.S. economy, we have been very focused on combating IUU fishing, and we have negotiated international treaties and agreements to do this, including the Port State Measures Agreements, which is a groundbreaking treaty designed to ensure that catch from IUU fishing does not enter into commerce and it cannot be offloaded in ports.
So we’ve been working very hard to address this, and with the attention being paid now to the PRC fleet off the west coast of South America, we are hopeful that we can raise awareness and bring additional attention to this problem.
With regard to the People’s Republic of China, as DAS Piechowski said, they have one of the largest fishing fleets in the world and certainly one of the largest distant-water fishing fleets in the world. And when this fleet engages in any aspect of IUU fishing, it threatens food security, the ocean environment and endangered species, and the livelihoods of harvesters and producers wherever this occurs.
The United States, as a matter of policy, is calling upon all of our partners around the globe to combat IUU fishing and to urge the People’s Republic of China to adhere to international norms and to stop any illegal and illicit practices worldwide.
We are working at the World Trade Organization to discipline fishery subsidies that support IUU fishing or contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, noting here that the People’s Republic of China subsidizes the world’s largest fishing fleet, including their distant-water fleet, and where it’s fishing on the high seas and in waters that are subject to another state’s jurisdiction. And so it is important that all coastal states share information and work together, as DAS Piechowski said, to expose any damaging PRC IUU fishing activity, any negative effects on the marine environment, and to identify where these problems need to be addressed by the People’s Republic of China, whether it’s near the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Peru or Chile, or even more broadly given the interactions between fishing vessels of coastal states like Brazil in the Atlantic or even in Africa or the Indian Ocean. It is important to us to make sure that all of the nations and communities around the world understand the need to hold the PRC accountable for their flag state responsibilities.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing.
Our first question will go to Emilio Lara of Bio Bio Chile.
Question: Good afternoon. So first of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview. And my question for either Mr. Piechowski or Mr. Hogan would be: How would you describe China’s current fishing campaign? And if you had an opportunity to address Beijing, what would you tell them to stop?
Mr. Hogan: Thank you very much. I’ll talk to the specifics of the fishing activity. The fleet that is fishing off the west coast of South America right now is primarily targeting squid, and it is a fleet that has visited the region before and following the target species. One of the significant problems, as DAS Piechowski mentioned, was that because the vessels are fishing so close to the exclusive economic zones of the coastal states and because we have uncertainty that they are always respecting the sovereignty of the coastal states, including by fishing within their zones or by allowing the debris from their fishing activities to enter the coastal waters of each of the countries, we’re very concerned that this activity is undermining the coastal states’ sovereignty with regard to its resources and any management rules they have in place. And the negative effects of the fishing can deplete the fish stocks; they can undermine the political efforts of the coastal states to manage their fisheries, to manage the interests of their harvesting communities. And the fishing fleet of the PRC as it moves south along the west coast of South America and makes the turn around the cape and enters the southwest Atlantic Ocean is literally a moving – a moving target for coastal states to monitor. And fishing so far away from the People’s Republic of China, it is very challenging for China to execute its flag state responsibilities if they are not devoting a lot of resources and bearing a lot of costs to do so.
So that is the nature of the fishing activity. We have spoken with Beijing in our bilateral discussions about the need for them to increase their efforts to fulfill their flag state responsibilities to control their fleet, to monitor the fleet and its effects, and to hold vessels and companies accountable for the actions of those vessels. Beijing has declared they have a zero tolerance policy for IUU fishing, but IUU fishing has continued even after they’ve established that policy. And we are seeking to ensure that they are backing up their words with actions and that they are not allowing their fleets to have a negative economic impact on any of the coastal states or any of the other countries that participate in international fisheries.
Moderator: Thank you. We have quite a few questions from journalists submitted in advance, and so I’ll go to one of those. The next question is from Monica Almeida from El Universo in Ecuador. “What should countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Chile do to control the damage done by the Chinese fleet in the South Pacific?”
DAS Piechowski: This is Jon Piechowski. I think one of the most important things that states can do is to exercise their sovereign rights and their sovereign control of their – certainly their land but as well their territorial waters. And that’s one of the reasons why the United States is responding to our partners’ calls to partner with them. You’ve heard that the U.S. Coast Guard is stepping up our – or their focus on IUU fishing, and I think one of the other things you will see increasingly is cooperation between the United States and some of the countries in the region on promoting sustainable fisheries on being able to monitor and to control their waters.
Moderator: Our next question is from Ivan Martinic of El Mercurio in Chile. “What specific information, meaning number of boats, navigation routes, activities at sea, do you have on the Chinese fishing fleet that at the moment would be sailing through the South Pacific in parallel to the exclusive economic zone of Chile?”
Mr. Hogan: Thank you very much. The fleet as it is currently configured numbers around 300 vessels. The navigation route is in fact a southward progression. Attention was paid when the fleet arrived near Galapagos, but it will transition, as it has already started, near Peru and then on to Chile before moving into the Atlantic. The target is squid, although there are also other species that have been taken and we’ve seen cargo vessels picking up products from this fleet in prior visits to this part of the ocean also carrying shark fins and other products. But the primary target is squid fishery. And we are trying to share as much information as we can with the coastal states. As DAS Piechowski said, the cooperation we are offering and the cooperation we are encouraging among all these coastal states to monitor this fleet as it moves southward and around into the Atlantic is one of the best ways that the coastal states can continue to obtain information about the fleet and its effects. But that is the picture that we have as of this moment.
Moderator: All right. Our next question comes from Gabriela Perozo of VPI TV.
Question: Hi. Thank you so much for this opportunity. This week, Admiral Craig Faller and the Ambassador Jean Manes discussed this threat and said when you have illegal fishing, it means that those local fishermen no longer have a business. Then what happens? They need to feed their families. So unfortunately, not by choice, they become fill runners or supply runners to the drug boats. What can you say about that? And how can the U.S. stop 300 Chinese vessels without using military force? Thank you so much.
Mr. Hogan: Thank you. I’ll defer to DAS Piechowski, but I did want to address the two questions. I think it is absolutely vital to look at the effects of IUU fishing and any unsustainable fishing practices as an economic issue because of the need for harvesters and producers to have fish to catch. That is their business. And we have seen in other parts of the world where a decline in fish stocks because of overfishing has led to these kinds of transitions to other, much less productive and much more harmful ways of making a living to support a family. We saw the rise of piracy in the northwest Indian Ocean as a result, in part, to the decline of the fish stocks because of uncontrolled or IUU fishing that depleted the tuna stocks, and the fishermen in the northwest Indian Ocean turned to piracy as a way to make a living. We have seen that transition elsewhere.
So it is important for every coastal state and the international community and market states even to understand the need to control how revenue flows into IUU fishing and to cut that off so that the revenue for legitimate producers is available for the seafood products in the WHA region to enter either local markets or international markets and compete effectively to reward the fishers for following the rules. We need to eliminate the product from IUU so that they are able to make a living. Fishing is one of the oldest professions that human beings pursue, and coastal communities rely on it so it is very important.
And to address your second question, the United States is not seeking to stop the Chinese fleet that is fishing off the west coast of South America as long as that fleet is following the rules, as long as it is fishing where it is supposed to and fishing as it is authorized to do. As long as it is following the international rules that we have negotiated and it is respecting coastal states’ sovereignty, the fishing fleet has a right to fish. But the problem is when any of those vessels conduct IUU fishing, when they threaten coastal states’ sovereignty, when the catch stocks that they are not authorized to catch, and then they undermine the coastal state economies and the livelihoods of their producers. That is when the potential threat becomes a real threat and a high risk of both environmental damage, unsustainable fisheries, and economic harm.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Diego Ortiz of El Comercio in Ecuador. “Which are the diplomatic instruments that countries such as Ecuador have in order to demand sustainable fishing to other countries with enormous fishing fleets?”
Mr. Hogan: Thank you. We have a number of diplomatic tools that the United States uses and tools that are available to any of – any of the countries that are concerned about this, where their interests are threatened by IUU fishing. In addition to directly demarching, directly communicating diplomatically with Beijing to inform them of any harm that results from their fleet’s activities, and in addition to joining with other countries to form networks and regional collaborations to share information to address this threat, we are also encouraging countries to look at the international instruments that have been negotiated and that are in force today, including the Port State Measures Agreement, which will tie together the coastal states, the port states, where fishing vessels offload their catch, and the flag states, to make sure that any fish that is landed and that enters into commerce was authorized to be caught and was caught in a way that conforms with all of the rules. And so this kind of multilateral agreement we hope can restrict the money that rewards illegal behavior, and also is a form of diplomatic relations between and among the port states and the flag states to communicate about what’s happening in the fisheries that affect them.
We really are encouraging all of the countries to exchange information with each other about what’s happening with their fisheries, to conduct diplomatic communications with the flag states like Beijing and others that these vessels are encroaching on their sovereignty and causing economic harm, and to hold to account any flag state that is not following the international norms and standards for fulfilling their flag state responsibilities.
Moderator: We have time for one last question, and that last question comes from Franklin Vega from Ecuador. “Is there a way to measure the impact of the Chinese fleet, both ecologically and economically?”
Mr. Hogan: Thank you. There are ways to measure both of those things, but they rely on very good reporting by the flag state, very good reporting by the vessels to their flag state in order to provide data on what they’re catching and how much they’re catching. We’ve negotiated rules in the international organizations that manage international fisheries, and where distant-water vessels are fishing under a license or with authorization in coastal state waters, there should be rules in place as well for those vessels to report to the coastal state what they’re catching.
What we have found in many cases is that that data on what is being caught and how much is being caught is not being reported, or is not being reported accurately. So it is very difficult to effectively measure the impact of the fishing and the economic impact. The rules that we have established and the rules that we’re asking every flag state to ensure their vessels are complying with require good data collection not only to measure the effects on the fish stocks and the economic impact, but also to make assessments of those stocks to inform future management decisions. And if IUU fishing is not being accounted for, then any decisions we can make in our international organizations that manage fisheries are already going to be ineffective because we don’t have the full picture.
Fisheries science is already kind of a guessing game. The science that we have in place is based on the data from the fisheries. We don’t have many other ways to estimate the number of fish that are in the ocean, and if we’re not getting good data, we are affecting the fisheries maybe for the very long term, if not permanently. We’ve seen cases of that in the past. So we try to measure it based on the information that’s available, but we rely on the vessels to report their catches and that is one of the flag state responsibilities that we are asking the People’s Republic of China and every flag state to fulfill. It is a fundamental need for good fisheries management and sustainability.
Moderator: All right. Over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Piechowski for his closing remarks.
DAS Piechowski: Thank you again. Our U.S. embassies and consulates in the region are collaborating with local government partners to strengthen IUU fishing policy and implementation in areas such as security cooperation, economic development, and environmental protection. Earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador traveled to the Galapagos Islands and met with government officials, NGOs, researchers, and others in order to bring focus on IUU fishing and maritime issues, including issues of security, environmental degradation, and strong evidence of the plastics contamination left behind by the Chinese fleet.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf joined with the Ecuadorian navy for a training exercise near where the Chinese-flagged fleet was located. NGOs are organizing and providing equipment, funds, and boats needed in Galapagos National Park to detect and intercept illegal fishing vessels in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
The United States will not back down on these efforts. The ocean provides food and livelihoods for millions of people in the region. If we do not act now, then we risk jeopardizing a critical resource that people all over the world depend upon. This affects all of us, and we must all be partners in the solution.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you. Thank you both. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Piechowski and Acting Director Hogan for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a good day.