- - Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Frigate mackerel, red soldier fish, yellow fin and bigeye tuna are jumping again after Beijing’s three-and-a-half-month summer fishing ban in the roiling South China Sea.

This signals a harvest for the thousands of fishing vessels from Hainan, Haiphong, Da Nang and Ly Son. Even the U.S. has cast its net into the contested waters by way of a recent Memorandum of Understanding between the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and the Vietnamese Agriculture Ministry’s Directorate of Fisheries (DFISH).

While the MoU is intended to strengthen Vietnam’s fisheries management and law enforcement capabilities, most South China Sea observers suggest that it is Washington’s way to help Hanoi address China’s unlawful actions associated with maritime claims in the disputed waters. Even during the current COVID-19 pandemic, China established de facto control over the South China Sea by sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, conducting military exercises near the Paracel Islands, and declaring greater restrictions over freedom of navigation.

The Trump administration’s broadside at Beijing boosts Vietnam’s maritime capabilities since a key component of the agreement includes direct support against illegal “intimidation” of Vietnamese fishermen at sea and foster greater cooperation to ensure sustainable living marine resources and combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” claims Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He added, “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”

This declaration represents the first time that Washington has publicly endorsed the integrity of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration Hague decision on the status of certain features in the Spratly Islands and represents a reversal from previous neutral American policy position in the disputed South China Sea. 

Vietnam’s alignment with the U.S. is geopolitically timely since Hanoi is still flagged with a “yellow card” issued from the European Union over IUU issues. Washington’s objective is to ensure that Vietnamese fishermen adhere to international maritime rules and not be fearful of outside intimidation from other neighboring vessels. 

While Vietnam has made progress with its transparency on fishery products, there remain issues associated with traceability and overall monitoring of fish catches. The problem is that many Vietnamese fishing vessels continue to fish illegally in foreign waters. 

The pandemic distractions enable fishers to operate from the premise that there’s lax enforcement and backslide into illegal operations. Since 2014, Indonesia has blown up and sunk several hundred fishing vessels, including fishing boats from Vietnam for allegedly violating its waters. 

A lot is at stake in fishery revenues. According to Seafood Source, Vietnam had almost $10.5 billion in exports from seafood products in 2019, up by 23% compared to 2017 figures. Vietnam Seafood Exporters and Producers believes that the country also has one of the fastest-growing fishing fleets in the world, increasing from 40,000 in 1990 to nearly 108,500 in 2018. 

If Vietnam is to deliver a credible fisheries management regime, that can return fishing efforts to sustainable levels and eradicate the bulk of illegal fishing by its fleet, it must take steps to target the illegal Vietnamese operators in both domestic and international waters. This includes compliance with vessel monitoring systems that specify the placement location on board the vessel.

The recent agreement between Washington and Hanoi does bolster the enforcement of strict limits to fishing efforts and offers deterrents for violators. However, for local fishermen their coastal waters remain overfished and their only alternative is to head for deep waters. 

“There are too many fishing boats. We must go further and further knowing that it’s dangerous,” claims Dang Van Nhan, a third-generation boat Da Nang captain, who has been casting his long-line nets into the turbulent South China Sea for two decades. 

Recent data from the Fujian Ocean and Fisheries Bureau reveals that China’s 2,900 distant-water vessels continue to plunder the ocean, often disguising their true location, employing destructive fishing techniques and flouting territorial borders of sovereign nations. 

As part of initiatives and allocated resources to address compliance with protection of fisheries and the marine environment, there’s Vietnam’s Fisheries Resources Surveillance. A governmental agency non-military task force established in 2013, it is responsible for patrolling, checking, controlling and detecting violators. 

Vietnam’s activities in the protection of fisheries were highlighted in 2016, when they responded along with marine scientists and government officials to Ha Tin province, where Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp. released chemicals, including cyanide and phenols, into the coastal waters. The results: a massive fish kill and the end of many livelihoods in the fishing industry.

Vietnamese citizens love their East Sea (as they refer to the South China Sea), and their fishermen. No international agreements or government marine oversight agencies will earn the “people’s heart and mind” about the sea. They only want fishermen to follow the fish and the law as stewards of the ocean. 

• James Borton is a senior environmental security writer and researcher and a non-resident fellow of Tufts University Science Diplomacy Center.

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