Thirty days after a Chinese cargo ship was seized in the waters of the Galapagos Islands for illegal fishing, the same fleet has been detained in East Timor by national police.
On September 9 a joint operation conducted at dawn by the East Timor National Police and marine conservation group, Sea Shepherd, resulted in the detainment of the Hong Long Fisheries and Pingtan Marine Enterprises fishing fleet at anchor off the coast of Com, north-east of the island.
On board, authorities found hundreds of frozen sharks, suggesting the ship was part of a transshipment network of shark hunting boats on their way back to Asia. While transshipment is not necessarily an illegal practice, it can facilitate the laundering and sale of illegally caught fish as well as human rights abuses, such as slavery.
The East Timor fleet belongs to that of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. This “reefer” (a large vessel into which “feeder” vessels deposit their catch for storage and transportation) caused global outrage in August after it was found with almost 300 tonnes of fish, including 6,600 sharks, close to the protected waters of Ecuador’s Galapagos National Park (read our report here).
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Sea Shepherd’s vessel, Ocean Warrior, had been tracking the fleet of 15 boats for two weeks before the seizure, which took place 150 kilometres south of the Portuguese-speaking island in South Asia.
Armed police boarded the boat and found frozen catch that appeared to be 95% shark, as well as broken coral, caught with gill nets set to target bottom-dwelling species.
“Unscrupulous foreign commercial fishing activities must be stopped in Timor Leste,” said Dr Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s former president and Nobel Prize winner, in response to the raid.
At the time of writing, all 15 vessels remain detained, pending investigation. It is not yet clear whether the vessels have committed any crime by focusing their fishing operations on sharks.
“Whether they have broken the law is a matter for the prosecutor of East Timor to work out. We do not know exactly what their licences state but what we do know is they are very clearly targeting sharks as their holds are full of very little else,” Gary Stokes, campaign leader on the Ocean Warrior said in an email to chinadialogue.
Ties to the Galapagos
The East Timor fleet is owned by Hong Long Fisheries, the same owners of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 that was seized in the Galapagos waters. The ships operating in East Timor are also linked to Pingtan Marine Enterprises, a US Nasdaq listed company.
The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 has since been impounded and will be sold off, while its 20 Chinese crew members have been given prison sentences of between one and four years in Ecuador.
China cracking down on illegal fishing
Chinese authorities have stated that illegal fishing will not be tolerated. China's Ocean Fisheries Management Revisions says that fishing companies found to be engaged in, supporting, or assisting in any illegal activity will be disqualified from overseas fleets.
In 2015, Sea Shepherd came across six illegal drift netters in the Indian Ocean and requested China’s assistance in bringing the privately-owned operations to justice. According to the conservation group, the Chinese authorities immediately opened an investigation and later punished the perpetrators.
“We hope that China will take the same stern action with these illegal vessels,” said Stokes.
At risk from transshipment
The latest incident raises the question of why vessels continue to leave port unfettered despite proof of their connection to illegal fishing practices. The answer is that in most circumstances reefers transhipping on the high seas are legal, it is only illegal when inside a country's Exclusive Economic Zone or territorial waters, according to Sea Shepherd.
“Every country is at risk by transshipment. With up to 40% of all fish being caught illegally the only way to get anything under control is by traceability. This is all lost when a vessel offloads at sea and illegal catch is mixed with legally caught fish,” said Stokes.