By JOSHUA GOODMAN
ABOARD THE OCEAN WARRIOR in the eastern Pacific Ocean (AP) — It’s 3 a.m., and after five days plying through the high seas, the Ocean Warrior is surrounded by an atoll of blazing lights that overtakes the nighttime sky.
“Welcome to the party!” said third officer Filippo Marini as the spectacle floods the ship’s bridge and interrupts his overnight watch.
It’s the conservationists’ first glimpse of the world’s largest fishing fleet: an armada of nearly 300 Chinese vessels that have sailed halfway across the globe to lure the elusive Humboldt squid from the Pacific Ocean’s inky depths.
As Italian hip hop blares across the bridge, Marini furiously scribbles the electronic IDs of 37 fishing vessels that pop up as green triangles on the Ocean Warrior’s radar onto a sheet of paper, before they disappear.
Immediately he detects a number of red flags: two of the boats have gone ‘dark,’ their mandatory tracking device that gives a ship’s position switched off. Still others are broadcasting two different radio numbers — a sign of possible tampering.
The Associated Press with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision accompanied the Ocean Warrior this summer on an 18-day voyage to observe up close for the first time the Chinese distant water fishing fleet on the high seas off South America.
The vigilante patrol was prompted by an international outcry last summer when hundreds of Chinese vessels were discovered fishing for squid near the long-isolated Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO world heritage site that inspired 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin and is home to some of the world’s most endangered species, from giant tortoises to hammerhead sharks.
China’s deployment to this remote expanse is no accident. Decades of overfishing have pushed its overseas fleet, the world’s largest, ever farther from home. Officially capped at 3,000 vessels, the fleet might actually consist of thousands more. Keeping such a sizable flotilla at sea, sometimes for years at a time, is at once a technical feat made possible through billions in state subsidies and a source of national pride akin to what the U.S. space program was for generations of Americans.
Beijing says it has zero tolerance for illegal fishing and points to recent actions such as a temporary moratorium on high seas squid fishing as evidence of its environmental stewardship. Those now criticizing China, including the U.S. and Europe, for decades raided the oceans themselves.
But the sheer size of the Chinese fleet and its recent arrival to the Americas has stirred fears that it could exhaust marine stocks. There’s also concern that in the absence of effective controls, illegal fishing will soar. The U.S. Coast Guard recently declared that illegal fishing had replaced piracy as its top maritime security threat.
Meanwhile, activists are seeking restrictions on fishing as part of negotiations underway on a first-ever High Seas Treaty, which could dramatically boost international cooperation on the traditionally lawless waters that comprise nearly half…
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