By John Toth
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Not too long ago in the 1970’s, the Russian fishing fleet was taking huge amounts of fish, especially cod and haddock, off our nation’s coast line along with ships from other nations. The Russian fleet was different in that it was able to plunder our fisheries since it had a huge mother ship that was refrigerated and could store huge amounts of fish in its hold. Smaller Russian fishing boats would transfer their catch to the mother ship so that a lot of fish could be caught without these boats having to return to Russian ports to unload their catch. I still remember reading that these ships were catching a lot of lobsters but the Russians were throwing them back into the water since they were unfamiliar with them until some Russian chef discovered that they taste good!
To deter the Russians from depleting our fishing grounds and putting our fishing fleets out of business, our fishing community united behind the proposal to extend our coastline to a 200 – hundred mile limit. This would effectively keep the Russians and other foreign fleets out of our prime fishing zones. I still remember Al Ristori, who was a tireless advocate to establish the 200-mile limit, visiting my club (Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County) and directing us to write letters, post cards and sign petitions to get our politicians on board to this 200 – mile extension of our coastline that was eventually enacted.
Compared to what we experienced in the 1970’s is totally different than what other nations are experiencing now. Over the last two decades, China has built the world’s largest deep water fishing fleet by far with nearly 3,000 ships! Having severely depleting fishing stocks in its own coastal waters, China now fishes in any ocean in the world and on a scale that dwarfs some countries entire fishing fleet. It also has a huge mother ship with a hold that is refrigerated and can store thousands of tons of fish that the smaller fishing boats transfer their fish to it.
In the summer of 2020, the conservation group Oceana counted nearly 300 hundred Chinese ships operating near the Galapagos Islands, just outside Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone, the 200 miles off its territory where it maintain rights to natural resources under the Law of the Sea Treaty.
Another Chinese fleet has also moved off the coast of Argentina to catch squid. It used to have six boats in this area and now it has 528 boats in this location and the annual catch rose from 5,000 tons to 278,000 tons! “We have a permanent Chinese fleet 200 miles off our coast “said Pablo Ferrara, a lawyer and professor at the University of Salvador in Buenos Aires, referring to the distance covered by Argentina’s Economic Zone.
How can squid or any fish survive this fishing pressure of 528 boats catching them on a continual basis? We all know that squid is a valuable food source not only for humans, but also for a large variety of fish that target squid for their nourishment. Taking squid in such large quantities has to severely deplete their numbers to a point where they are overfished and the whole ecosystem in this area is disrupted since other fish will not be able to feed on them.
The appearance of the Chinese fishing fleet on the edge of the Galapagos Islands in 2020 focused international attention on the industrial scale of China’s fishing fleet. While countries like Ecuador, Peru and Argentina are trying to restrict China from its territorial waters, there is little that can be done to restrict China on the open seas. The consumption of fish word wide continues to rise and at the same time stocks of most species continue to decline.
“The challenge is to persuade China that it too has a need to ensure the longrange sustainability of the ocean’s resources” said Duncan Currie, an international lawyer who advises the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “It’s not going to be there forever.”
From what I can see with China’s huge fleet and their placing 528 fishing boats off the coast of Argentina to fish for squid until they are gone – Good Luck with that since fish sustainability is not in China’s vocabulary!
(China, With Its Seas Depleted, Casts Nets Off Others’ Coasts, New York Times, October 1, 2022).