Deceptive technology heightens concerns over illegal Chinese trawlers

By Zarak Khan

Pakistan soldiers stand guard at the port of Gwadar. [Sarah Titterton/AFP]

Pakistan soldiers stand guard at the port of Gwadar. [Sarah Titterton/AFP]

Chinese deep sea trawlers equipped with advanced technology are continuing to threaten global and Pakistani fisheries.

Chinese vessels fishing outside their country's waters have long been accused of engaging in illegal behaviour and have emerged as the world's largest exploiter of fisheries on a global, not just regional, scale.

China has developed the world's largest fishing fleet of vessels and trawlers operating in domestic and neighbouring coastal inshore and offshore areas, as well as a distant-water fleet (DWF) active in many parts of the world, said a report by the Congressional Research Service published in April.

"China's fishing fleets have been implicated in illegal fishing activity in many parts of the world, and China is a leading country responsible for Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing," the report said.

Karachi residents protest in September 2020 against the arrival of Chinese deep-sea trawlers in Sindh and Balochistan in a file photo. [Zarak Khan/Pakistan Forward]

Karachi residents protest in September 2020 against the arrival of Chinese deep-sea trawlers in Sindh and Balochistan in a file photo. [Zarak Khan/Pakistan Forward]

Last year, Pakistan detained five Chinese trawlers on suspicion of illegal fishing near Gwadar, a port city has is expected to be a major part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).

The Chinese trawlers, full of fish, were seized by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), which began an investigation of their presence in Gwadar, the Guardian reported in July 2021.

In neighbouring India, authorities have found that Chinese trawlers using high-tech gadgets can create glitches to hide their locations, the Hindu reported in August 2021.

"If the trawlers fish in less than [20-metre-deep] waters, it is illegal, but these devices can trick us. If they use the proper system, it will be easy for us to co-ordinate with the Navy or Coast Guard during rescue operations and solve the confusion related to catch certificates," an Indian official told The Hindu.

Pakistani authorities have also raised concerns over the Chinese tech equipment installed on the trawlers, according to a PSMA official.

"Such tech equipment at Chinese trawlers has been compromising the country's coastal security," the PSMA official posted in Gwadar told Pakistan Forward, requesting anonymity because of security reasons.

Locals have been alarmed by the reports.

"Chinese fishing trawlers operate illegally off the coast of Pakistan, depleting its fish population and destroying marine resources," said Bashir Hout, a fishermen's leader in Gwadar.

"The Pakistani government should completely ban Chinese trawlers not only to save the livelihood of the local fishing community but also safeguard the country's maritime security," Hout said.

Chinese vessels in the past have also been accused of using deep sea trawling nets stretched between two vessels, a practice that conservationists denounce because it inadvertently and wastefully kills fish, said an August 2020 report by YaleEnvironment360, an online magazine published by Yale University.

"Having depleted the seas close to home, the Chinese fishing fleet has been sailing farther afield in recent years to exploit the waters of other countries," it said.

Reservations over growing Chinese influence

Thousands of fishing workers in Gwadar have attended several rallies to convey local residents' concerns over Chinese influence on their livelihoods and daily lives and to demand an end to illegal deep-sea fishing by local and Chinese trawlers that devastates the livelihood of Pakistani fishing workers.

The Chinese Communist Party has inked deals with Pakistan for several multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects, raising concerns over Chinese influence in the country.

The exponential growth of Chinese influence in Balochistan province -- with Chinese companies exploiting local resources without care or concern for the impact on locals -- is driving serious unrest in the province, say lawmakers and observers.

Anger over growing Chinese influence in Balochistan has spurred Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations to ally with each other, fuelling concern that the combined group will step up violent activities in the region.

In late April, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a component of the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS), claimed responsibility for killing four people, including three Chinese teachers, in a suicide attack inside a state-run university in Karachi.

BLA militants in February also staged twin assaults on army posts in Noshki and Panjgur districts, Balochistan.

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