Chinese fishing captains face jail, big fines for alleged illegal fishing in Vanuatu

Dan McGarry in Port Vila
·4-min read

The captains of two Chinese fishing vessels accused of illegal fishing and carrying driftnets in Vanuatu waters face up to five years in prison and millions of dollars in fines, but the ships’ owner insists the charges are baseless and “at no time were our vessels undertaking commercial fishing in Vanuatu waters”.

The 14 officers and crew of the Dong Gangxing 13 and Dong Gangxing 16 were bailed on Tuesday after more than a month in police custody. They have been placed under house arrest at a hotel in Port Vila and their passports confiscated.

The fishers were intercepted in January near Hiu island in Vanuatu’s northern waters and held in quarantine for 14 days before being interrogated and charged.

Related: Chinese vessels detained by Vanuatu, accused of fishing illegally

All have been charged with offences under Vanuatu’s Fisheries Act, but only the ship masters, Chen You and Yang Dachao, face imprisonment or fines.

Among a raft of charges, they are accused of fishing illegally and possessing a driftnet.

Illegal fishing carries a maximum sentence of five years, and a fine of up to VT1 billion (US$8.7m). Driftnet fishing is illegal in Vanuatu. Simply possessing a driftnet attracts a penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to VT500 million (US$4.4m).

Prosecutors have alleged both ships turned off their satellite transponders while in Vanuatu waters, and argued all officers and crew should be remanded in custody because they were a risk of fleeing the country.

Prosecutors told the court: “Important devices installed by the vessels were destroyed by the defendants: police had difficulty confiscating the devices since they were damaged,” but did not specify what those devices were.

However, the ship’s owner, Mega East Ocean Fishing, said the charges of illegal fishing were unjustified. Company representatives have told the Guardian both ships’ holds were empty when they were seized.

In a statement to the Guardian, the company said “at no time were our vessels undertaking commercial fishing in Vanuatu waters”.

“The vessel location was at all times displayed to authorities and the purpose of entry was in no way sinister and cloaked as projected by media outlets.”

The owners also insist “the vessels’ location transponders were on at all times,” and that the ships were sailing to Vanuatu to obtain permits to begin fishing in the country’s waters.

“As recently as the day of the regrettable arrest of the vessels, we, the operators, had been in touch with the Ministry to ensure the required entry paperwork was completed.”

Mega East Ocean Fishing signed a memorandum of understanding with the then minister responsible for fisheries, Hosea Nevu in 2019, outlining a number of proposed developments, including the construction of a slipway and a processing plant, supplying up to 20 vessels to fish in Vanuatu waters, as well as fishing and processing of tuna and sea cucumber.

Both of its seized ships are registered with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, and their owner says it has completed their registration process with the Forum Fisheries Agency. These are required before a Vanuatu fishing licence can be granted.

Chinese fishing fleets going further, and fishing longer, across the Pacific, is a significant and growing concern.

A report last year from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) found China had the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, with nearly 17,000 vessels.

The ODI also found almost 1,000 Chinese vessels were registered in other countries and that at least 183 vessels in its fleet were suspected of involvement in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

An armada of Chinese vessels just off the Galápagos Islands – on the border of Ecuador’s territorial waters – logged 73,000 hours of fishing in a single month last year, and in December, a Chinese fishing vessel was intercepted and detained in Palau’s territorial waters for reportedly illegally harvesting sea cucumber.

Related: Tiny Pacific nation of Palau detains 'illegal' Chinese fishing vessel

In December, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China was “a responsible fishing country”, with “‘zero tolerance’ for violations of relevant laws and regulations committed by distant fishing vessels”.

“We have … strengthened international cooperation, and done a great deal of fruitful work in jointly combating illegal fishing and promoting the sustainable development of fishery resources with other countries.”