Chinese Fishing Trawlers: High Seas Robbers in India’s Backyard

The sighting of Chinese trawlers at the fringes of India’s north-western International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) off Gujarat coast has caught the attention of Indian authorities. The Indian fishermen have reported that these Chinese Distant-Water Fishing (DWF) vessels frequently enter the Indian EEZ and engage in predatory bottom trawling which causes major ecological degradation including loss in their catches.

Pakistan government has allowed Chinese fishing trawlers to fish in its EEZ and there is every reason to believe that these vessels will be move through Indian waters on their way to Pakistan’s EEZ and back to the port.

Mean while, an Indian intelligence agency has sounded alert on the possibility of infiltration attempts by Pakistani Marine Commandos in the Gulf of Kutch. There are fears that this may open yet another possible flare up with Pakistan amid the ongoing heightened tension with China at the Ladakh border.

It is worth mentioning that fishing with a valid license in the coastal State’s EEZ and high seas is in accordance with the existing international laws and therefore perfectly legal. However, as is well known, that ‘the fish doesn’t know the borders’ and hence, such activities syphon off the fish from adjacent waters.

It is quite plausible that Chinese fishing trawlers may line up along the IMBL off Gujarat just outside the Indian EEZ, indulge in rampant fishing and taking away migratory fishes thus depleting existing fish stocks. Moreover, the Chinese trawlers, may sneak into the Indian EEZ, whenever such an opportunity arises, given the limited policing resource available with India. It may be recalled that Chinese DWF trawlers had formed a near-perfect line along the boundary of Ecuador’s EEZ, and were involved in fishing without entering Ecuadorian waters.

Besides challenging Indian fishermen, the Chinese trawlers too have adopted predatory fishing within Pakistani EEZ. This may force the local Pakistani fishermen to venture closer to the Indian side of the IMBL for survival, putting Indian fishermen (off Gujarat and Daman & Diu coast) under extreme duress due to increased competition. It could potentially put greater pressure on the Indian coast Guard assets by way of higher demand of policing.

Earlier in 2019, 10 Chinese fishing vessels were provided shelter at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra to escape the fury of Cyclone Vayu. The Indian Coast Guard inspections revealed that they had caught huge stock of fish in Indian waters. These vessels had storage capacity of 80,000 tonnes and illegal fishing gears such as squid jigging equipment, purse seine and pelagic fishing nets and devices were discovered. Experts argue that the “Chinese trawlers can always move into more direct harassment of Indian fishing vessels like manoeuvring dangerously close or physically ramming them, thereby, making it unsafe for Indian fishing boats to operate in open International waters. China can be using hundreds of fishing vessels as maritime militia to limit the Indian fishing boats,”

The Chinese trawlers are larger than the Indian fishing trawlers and resort to physical harassment of the Indian vessels by conducting dangerous maneuver or ramming them, thus making it unsafe for the Indian fishermen fishing in the high seas adjoining Indian EEZ. These aggressive maneuver by the Chinese trawlers are similar to those carried out in South China Sea.

While Chinese trawlers engage in predatory fishing, experts argue that these are also useful for surveillance, monitoring, and reporting particularly on the operational activities of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard. These trawlers are legally allowed to carry Sonars and Side-scan Sonars for fishing purposes; but it is not beyond the stretch of imagination that these vessels may be put to dual use. The side-scan sonars can carry out bottom mapping of the Indian sea floor and help prepare critical navigation charts which would support offensive operations by the Chinese submarines within Indian waters. These trawlers can also be utilised to launch and control, weaponized and non-weaponized portable underwater vehicle-meant to conduct covert intelligence gathering and launch underwater attack, when required.

As far as legality of the passage by Chinese vessels in Indian waters is concerned, there are provisions for such a transit under the ‘right of innocent passage’ as contained in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS allow any vessel including fishing trawlers to navigate as close to 1 to 2nautical miles from the coast as long as it does not undertake any activity which is prejudicial to the interest of the coastal state. This poses a major challenge for Indian law enforcement agencies.

Dr Kumar A is a maritime analyst.

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