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‘There are solutions to these abuses’: Q&A with Steve Trent on how China can rein in illegal fishing

A great white shark off the coast of South Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Earlier this week, Mongabay published an article uncovering a massive illegal shark finning scheme across the fleet of one of China’s largest tuna companies, Dalian Ocean Fishing.
  • China has the world’s biggest fishing fleet, but oversight of the sector is lax, with many countries’ boats routinely found to be engaging in illegal and destructive practices, especially in international waters.
  • Mongabay spoke with Steve Trent, the head of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which has also investigated the fishing industry, about DOF’s shark finning scheme and how China can better monitor its vessels.

During the decade-plus in which he ran a program in China designed to reduce demand for wildlife products like shark fin, tiger bone, rhino horn and elephant ivory, Steve Trent visited the country over 100 times, working with national broadcasters to develop messaging campaigns regularly seen by over 500 million people a week.

Based on that experience, through which he met some of Beijing’s highest-ranking officials, he knows the rampant lawbreaking by China’s distant-water fishing fleet, the world’s largest, is not something the country’s leadership is unaware of.

“They know,” Trent said, “and I think now is the time, with all this attention globally, with declining fish populations and stocks, with the impact on shark species, for them to step up and do what they should [to put a stop to it].”

Yesterday Mongabay published an article revealing a massive illegal shark finning operation across the fleet of one of China’s largest tuna companies, Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF). The story relies on dozens of interviews with DOF’s former workers whom Mongabay tracked down in Indonesia — a methodology adapted from the work of Trent’s organization, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

Over the past several years, the EJF has produced a series of reports detailing illegal fishing and human rights abuses by some of the world’s biggest distant-water fishing fleets, such as those of South Korea and Taiwan. (A distant-water vessel is one fishing outside its own country’s territorial waters.) For its most recent such report, the EJF interviewed 116 Indonesian men who worked on 88 Chinese boats. Some of the men worked for DOF, and excerpts from their testimonies shared with Mongabay helped corroborate what we learned from our own reporting.

“We caught countless sharks,” a former deckhand says in an EJF video accompanying its China report. “Enough to destroy an ecosystem.”

Today, sharks are in trouble. Scientists estimate their numbers in the open ocean have declined by 71% over the past half century, largely due to overfishing practices like shark finning. The fins are typically eaten in shark fin soup, and while some fins are produced legally, many come from shark finning, the widely illegal practice of cutting off the fins and throwing the rest of the body overboard.

Over the past few years, China has issued policies meant to prevent shark finning, including an explicit ban on the practice and a directive that China-flagged vessels should refrain from deliberately catching sharks. But given the extent to which Chinese boats flouted the rules, experts like Trent say the country must act more aggressively to enforce the law.

“There are solutions to these abuses, they are with us, here and now,” he said. “They are economically realistic, they’re certainly politically achievable in the context of China. Why would you not implement them? That’s the key question to be asking the minister of agriculture and rural affairs [who oversees fishing] in China.”

Mongabay’s Philip Jacobson spoke with Trent about Dalian Ocean Fishing, China’s distant-water fishing fleet, and how to stop these kinds of abuses. The following interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Steve Trent. Image courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Mongabay: How widespread is shark finning among China’s distant-water fishing fleet?

Steve Trent: If you look at the dataset we’ve got, it’s over 100 crew on 88 vessels. So when you’re looking at estimates for the Chinese fleet, everything from 2,600 vessels to what we think are a fairly ridiculous 16,000 vessels, it’s only a sample, but I think it is enough of a sample to give you some reasonably qualitative data. And what we found was almost all the crew that we interviewed said sharks were illegally finned on their vessels. And over a third reported that other protected species, such as turtles and seals, were also killed on Chinese fishing vessels.

For me one of the key facts, because I think the astonishing level of waste in this is just remarkable, is around one-fifth of those crew said dolphins were routinely killed to be used as bait to catch sharks. So you’re catching cetacean species to turn them into bait to catch sharks that are then finned with most of the bodies commonly thrown back. I mean, these are top ocean predators, they’re keepers of the environment, if you like. These kinds of activities have a much broader ripple effect in impacting ecological security and the ecological integrity of marine ecosystems.

So I was quite dumbstruck by the level of abuse we found. I think it shows powerful indicators that this is systemic. What we uncovered was that this wasn’t one geography or one jurisdiction, but most. It wasn’t one vessel, or just a few, but most that we interviewed. So you’re looking at this situation where it’s running throughout and across the Chinese distant-water fleet. It’s not just a rogue element within it, say operating in a particular context in the Gulf of Guinea. It seems to me that wherever they’re operating it’s fairly standard practice to have them taking sharks and other important marine species, some of which are protected. So it’s a fairly bleak outlook, I’m afraid.

Mongabay: Who’s responsible for making sure this doesn’t happen?

Steve Trent: Obviously you can say there are a number of different actors who share some responsibility. And we would say the global system of governance for marine fisheries is inadequate, full of holes. That’s why we keep pushing the transparency piece. Until you can understand who is fishing what, where, when and how, many abuses are going to go on undercover, are going to go unexposed. And it also enables and facilitates bad behavior. So that’s one piece.

But you know, while over the past decade or two the Chinese fleet has indeed transformed from a largely state-owned group of vessels to predominantly privately owned vessels, there are no innocent parties in this, and you just need to look at the level of subsidies. I think in 2019, over $1.8 billion were given by the Chinese state to its distant-water fleet in subsidies. And it’s absolutely clear that some at the very least of these operations simply wouldn’t have been economically viable without these state subsidies.

You’re asking about responsibility? RFMOs [regional fisheries management organizations, which are multilateral bodies that regulate fishing in international waters], could they, should they do more? Yes, they probably should. But these are Chinese vessels. As the flag state, it has the responsibility to oversee, to examine their operations, and to apply adequate monitoring, control and surveillance along with enforcement actions, where necessary, and deterrent penalties. Is China doing so? No. So you can point a finger at inadequate procedures in coastal states, inadequate procedures in market states arguably, but the the primary agency responsible for this rests with the Chinese government and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. They are responsible, they should be assessing far greater control, and they’re simply not.

Sharks swimming off the coast of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: EJF has studied the fleets of several different countries, South Korea, Japan etc. How does China compare in terms of shark finning?

Steve Trent: I would hesitate about giving an off-the-cuff comparative analysis. It is something that we will look to do in the near future. What we can say is, going back to those initial figures that I gave, we are looking at 95% of those people we interviewed identifying some form of illegal fishing [on China’s fleet]. They witnessed some form of illegal fishing. And of that 95%, virtually all of them saying they’re seeing shark finning.

So again, is it worse than the Taiwanese fleet? My gut feeling is probably it’s around the same. But I don’t have the data yet available to substantiate that. But 95% saying “we witnessed this,” you know you’ve got a major problem, and you know this is going to be having a detrimental impact on species in the wild. So that’s the core of the problem as I see it.

Mongabay: Aside from shark finning, one of the main findings from Mongabay’s investigation is that DOF used banned gear to deliberately catch sharks. The men we interviewed described using shark lines and wire leaders simultaneously, which is outlawed in the western Pacific tuna fisheries where DOF did most of its fishing. Can you address the gear issue?

Steve Trent: In some instances, the shark catch is definitely opportunistic. So they are not actively going out to target sharks, they’re just taking the opportunity when it comes. But it’s equally clear there are vessels in the Chinese distant-water fleet that are actively going out to catch sharks. And so they’re using prohibited gear.

They’re also fishing in areas on occasion where they’re not meant to, areas reserved for artisanal fishers. They’re also targeting species, as we’ve mentioned it’s not just sharks, you are also looking at seals, other cetacean species, not just dolphins. There’s a whole range of species that are being targeted.

What we need is far greater transparency. We need to change the architecture of global fisheries governance to ensure that it delivers the transparency that would allow all the stakeholders, whether you are a retailer in a major market, whether you’re a fisheries manager, whether you’re an enforcement official or agency, or indeed whether you’re a flag state, the Chinese flag state, so they can see who’s fishing what, where, when and how.

And the key point I would make here about transparency is it’s relatively speaking very cheap to achieve. We have the technology and the logistical ability to deliver transparency right here and now. What it takes is a bit of political will and leadership. So we need to see them step up and do that. I don’t think anybody’s going to bully the Chinese government into doing this, but I think they can be persuaded that it is in their own best interest to do it.

Mongabay: When you say we have the technology, you mean things like cameras on boats, that sort of thing?

Steve Trent: You have a fairly absurd situation at the moment where some businesses and some operators are going to try and persuade you that they’re doing everything they can, that it’s all fine.

If you look at the fisheries observers, for example, in Ghana, where you have that huge Chinese fleet that’s masquerading as a Ghanaian fleet, over 90% of the trawl vessels there, we believe the true beneficial ownership rests with China, yet they’re flying Ghanaian flags to avoid local rules and regulations and prohibitions that prevent foreign ownership of the trawl fleet. If you look on that fleet, they will tell you “we’ve got a fairly comprehensive network of observers.” If you talk to those observers, they are used and abused and there are also indications that on more than one occasion, some of them have been murdered. And, if you are being paid by the vessel that you are on to police, to observe, how easy is it for you to actually give the true facts and figures?

Read more: For sustainable global fisheries, watchdogs focus on onshore beneficial owners

So human observers are there, I think they have a role, they can do a lot, but simple camera technology. You can do this, this is not a high expense, particularly if you are looking at the more profitable areas of the Chinese distant-water fleet. If you look at any tuna fishery, one tuna is going to give you the money to install cameras on your vessel, to run them, to monitor them. This is not some kind of wishful thinking high-tech world that we’re asking for. It’s glorified smartphone technology that’s just properly implemented and used. So you can have that kind of thing.

Something that I’m also a big fan of, because it allows you to see a lot, would be to share vessel-tracking data. It could be in effect virtually free to use Global Fishing Watch to allow them access to either VMS preferably, but also AIS systems on these vessels, and to track them so you can see who’s doing what and where. That’s a big start.

But even here, when you look at what the Chinese distant-water fleet has done in Ghana, and I’m just using that as a very good, well-studied example, they have made best use of complex corporate structures, onshore, to disguise their operations. This is not some shallow, ad hoc mistake. It’s the deliberate structuring of their operations so they can avoid scrutiny and avoid the kind of interventions that would stop at least a large part of the illegal fishing.

A great white shark off the coast of South Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: One question raised by Mongabay’s investigation into Dalian Ocean Fishing is who’s responsible for organizing the illegal hunting and finning of sharks on its vessels and who’s actually profiting off it. Is it the captains? Or does it go higher up in the company’s management structure? It’s not a question we can answer with certainty at this time, although from our interviews it’s clear that the captains on this company’s boats in the western Pacific were coordinating among themselves to some degree as part of this shark operation, because they frequently moved shark fins from one DOF boat to another.

Steve Trent: Two points, and I’d firstly give the context. We very recently have been looking at Dalian [Ocean Fishing] ourselves, we interviewed I think it’s 24 crew members from 12 Chinese-flagged tuna vessels operated by Dalian. So we’ve had some engagement with them, we’ve been watching them for quite some time, we monitor them on satellite tracking, we’ve looked into them.

Two points to make. The first is, yes, the captains are clearly involved. Because when we’re looking at the illegal fishing operations, we’re also looking at the human rights abuses. I could give you verbatim quotes of the testimony we’ve had about a captain violently assaulting crew and directing them to do things, including taking sharks. So yeah, captains are involved. And as we all know, at sea [captains] have a sense of overarching power and control over the vessel and everybody on it.

Read more: Worked to death: How a Chinese tuna juggernaut crushed its Indonesian workers

But it’s pretty clear the fleet as a whole is involved, and that the operators of that fleet, the Dalian company, are responsible. And I find it almost inconceivable that senior officials within that company do not know and arguably are not themselves directing these kind of operations.

Then I would go take it back again to the responsibilities of the flag state, and say why are you not exercising appropriate monitoring, control and surveillance over this fleet, where it’s becoming increasingly widely known that there are rogue vessels within it, that they are, as we keep saying, not just targeting endangered or threatened species or protected species but also engaged in violent human rights abuses? This covers a whole range of problems.

Yudha Pratama worked on the Long Xing 629, a DOF vessel that made international headlines and spurred human trafficking investigations in Indonesia after some of its crew members fell ill and died. Image by Febriansyah for Mongabay.

So I think even if they don’t know, the core fact is they should, they are obligated to know that as part of their responsibility. And if you can’t exercise your responsibilities, if you can’t meet your responsibilities, then you shouldn’t be in the business.

It’s frustrating, but we will carry on looking at the [Chinese distant-water] fleet, including Dalian Ocean Fishing, but I think even now, where you put together a portfolio of the various different investigation studies, anecdotal and more robust data that has come out, and you can see very clearly, Dalian is a problem, there is trouble there, but the Chinese distant-water fleet as a whole has really significant substantial problems.

And I would point to something else. You asked me earlier who’s responsible, and market states, they’re not so much responsible but they have an opportunity to leverage their purchasing power, and to drive down through fishery supply chains responsible action through their purchasing decisions. So let’s not forget how many Chinese vessels are licensed to export fish to the European Union — it is a large number. Let’s not forget that the largest seafood trading partner of the United States is China. So we’re all responsible in this.

I would be very loathe to take this back to the consumer, but even there I would say consumers can ask their retailers, the people they get their fish from, can you prove it was taken sustainably, legally, and I would say ethically, so not produced by somebody who’s held as a slave on a vessel, who’s been violently assaulted.

Mongabay: Maybe something like what happened in the palm oil industry a decade or so ago, with all the pledges by producers and buyers of palm oil to stop deforesting or to stop buying palm oil linked to deforestation?

Steve Trent: Yes, we need this. This is the thing. And the problem is you have multiple levels through the supply chain, what I would call plausible deniability for many. “We didn’t know it was produced that way, we didn’t know it was happening.”

And my argument back to them is, well actually now in this world where there’s been enough evidence, enough data that’s robust, under close scrutiny, that’s been proven to be true, to tell you that there is a major problem, you should know. And if you don’t, you’ve got to find the mechanisms to build that understanding and knowledge.

And hence, when I come back to the transparency piece, sounding like a broken record, that’s why for us, it’s not the end in and of itself, but it is a fundamental tool in restructuring the architecture of global governance and fisheries. We need to know who’s doing it, who’s doing what, where, when and how.

Mongabay: Our investigation also found that in 2019, Dalian Ocean Fishing apparently caught more shark than China reported for the nation’s entire longline fleet in the western Pacific Ocean for that year. So it indicates China is drastically undercounting the nation’s shark catch. And if you look at the FAO’s list of top 20 shark-catching nations, China does not appear on that list even though it has the world’s largest fishing fleet and constitutes the biggest market for shark fin. Does this indicate something is wrong with the Chinese government’s reporting process? Or maybe it’s more to do with Chinese companies failing to report their catch to the government?

Steve Trent: I think there is clear complicity here, that the fleets are disguising their catches, that’s absolutely clear, both individual vessels and individual captains, and collective numbers of vessels are disguising their catches and declaring or not declaring at all. But also the Chinese state is not declaring, and it’s not examining, and you go back to its requirements for due diligence, it simply is not exerting the necessary due diligence and meeting the obligations that it has as a flag state.

So there’s collective guilt in this. And the utility in highlighting that is not simply just to point the finger of blame at either a vessel or a company or indeed a country like China, although that can be necessary at times, but it’s to highlight the solutions. And this is the point: There are solutions to these abuses, they are with us, here and now. They are economically realistic, they’re certainly politically achievable in the context of China. Why would you not implement them? That’s the key question to be asking the minister of agriculture and rural affairs in China.

You know, I’ve been working on China since 1989. I’ve been there over 115 times. I’ve met the minister of agriculture, at least the previous minister of agriculture, and quite a few in the Chinese leadership. This is not new information to them. I ran a program in China that was reaching 500 million people every week, where we were working with CCTV, we were working with the Chinese officials in Xinhua News Agency to put out public service messaging about, among other things, shark finning and what was happening to sharks. They know this is going on. So I can speak to it from those 100-plus visits and times I’ve spent in Beijing, meeting with the official news agencies, putting the material out, meeting ministers and agencies that are responsible for this. So they know, and I think now is the time, with all this attention globally, with declining fish populations and stocks, with the impact on shark species, for them to step up and do what they should.

Read the Mongabay investigation, “Exclusive: Shark finning rampant across Chinese tuna firm’s fleet“.

Steve Trent is CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation and has more than 30 years’ experience in environmental and human rights campaigning. He also co-founded WildAid, serving as president for over a decade and leading WildAid’s work in China and India.

Banner: A great white shark off the coast of South Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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