A Coast Guard cutter with heavily armed U.S. Coast Guard personnel sailed close to a fleet consisting of several hundred Chinese squid-fishing vessels, just a few miles from Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Its mission is to inspect the vessels for any signs or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

It is legal to board ships on high seas as part the collective effort to save the ocean’s fish stocks.

However, this time the captains of several Chinese fishing boats did something completely unexpected. Three vessels speed away, one of which turned aggressively towards James, the Coast Guard cutter James. The American vessel had to take evasive measures to avoid being rammed.

“For the most parts they wanted to ignore us,” stated Coast Guard Lt. Hunter Stowes who is the highest-ranking officer of law enforcement on the James. “But, we were able navigate effectively so that were safe the whole time.”

Still, the confrontation at sea was a dangerous breach of international maritime protocols. The U.S. considers it a troubling precedent, as it occurred during the Coast Guard’s first ever mission to stop illegal fishing in eastern Pacific.

The Associated Press reconstructed details of the never-before-reported incident from the Coast Guard and six U.S. non-military officials who spoke of the operation in greater detail but requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing a multilateral process seeking to force China to sanction the vessels. While China’s diplomats accused the Americans for acting in an improper manner, they didn’t give a detailed account.

The Coast Guard’s extraordinary voyage was prompted in part by rising alarm from governments and activists in Latin America regarding the activities China’s largest distant-water fishing fleet. To 476 in 2009, eight times more Chinese-flagged vessels have been spotted fishing south Pacific waters, sometimes for several months. Its squid catch has increased from 70,000 tons up to 422,000, an increase that some scientists fear could be unsustainable for such a resilient species.

An AP-Univision investigation revealed that the Chinese flotilla contains some of the most serious offenders in the seafood sector, with long records for labor abuse, illegal fishing, and violating maritime law. After depleting fish stocks near home, and fuelled in part by an ever fiercer race between the two superpowers to access the world’s declining natural resources, they are now being drawn to the open sea around the Americas.

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The illegal fishing patrol took place over a period of 10 days in August. It was initially kept under wraps. A month later, the Coast Guard issued a brief statement praising the mission, along with photos of the two ships it managed to board. The Coast Guard did not make mention of the three ships that ran off or provide any information about the nationalities of the vessels. This is a position it maintained in conversations with the AP.

The incident was noticed in China.

According to U.S. officials Beijing made a formal written complaint within days. U.S. officials also brought up the matter. China summoned Ambassador Nicholas Burns to an emergency meeting after Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan. One of the officials stated that Nicholas Burns was called by China’s Foreign Ministry.

China’s foreign ministry said to the AP it has zero tolerance of illegal fishing. The U.S., however, is breaking international norms by unauthorized inspections that do not follow COVID protocols. These could put lives at stake for seafarers.

“The United States behavior is unsafe, opaque, unprofessional,” the foreign ministry stated in a statement sent to the AP. “We demand that the U.S. stop its dangerous, erroneous inspections.”

In this photo made available by the U.S. Coast Guard, guardsmen from the cutter James conduct a boarding of a fishing vessel in the eastern Pacific Ocean, on Aug. 3, 2022. (AP)

Coast Guard refutes this assertion. All members of the board team were also vaccinated.

The Biden administration also reported possible violations found on the two boats it checked to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization or SPRFMO. This 16-member organization, which includes China and the U.S., is responsible for ensuring sustainable fishing in 53,000,000 square kilometers of ocean.

One of the most serious allegations is against the Yong Hang 3. This refrigerated cargo vessel was used to transport fish to China. The vessel was flagged after it ran from the Coast Guard Patrol, disobeying maritime authorities in Panama. Certain vessels, including refrigerated cargo vessels are often flagged under other flags. However, they are managed and docked at China.

China’s communist government won’t punish a fleet 3,000 fishing boats it sees as an extension to its growing naval prowess. It will, however, likely use generous fuel subsidies and state loans to compensate.

According to Lt. Stowes the Coast Guard’s patrol was carefully planned. The United States notified fisheries officials over a year before that it was planning to conduct boardings in the region. Papers were filed showing photographs of the badges that the crew would wear as well as the blue-and white checkered flag the cutter would fly. Similar paperwork has been filed by five other countries including New Zealand and Chile under rules that permit members fishing in South Pacific to inspect each another’s vessels.

Stowes said, “Just our being there and doing the boards really makes a statement.”

At-sea inspections help to confirm that fishing vessels follow rules regarding forced labor, environmental hazardous gear, and the targeting endangered species such as sharks.

China has repeatedly blocked efforts for strengthening inspection procedures in south Pacific. China’s latest stonewalling was in 2013, when it claimed that fishing boats would be at greater risk if firearms were allowed on at-sea patrols.

Rules that were adopted unanimously in 2011 follow a 1995 United Nations treaty called the Fish Stocks Agreement. This allows inspectors to use limited force to keep safe.

A State Department official stated to AP that it sent a sternly written diplomatic note reminding Beijing not only of its international obligations but also the long history of labor abuses.

Biden’s administration is also considering whether to seek to have illegal fishing vessels blacklisted and prevented from returning to the South Pacific at an upcoming meeting of Ecuador’s fishing management organization.

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