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Study Exposes Illegal Fishing by Chinese Vessels in Tanzanian Waters

The environmental watchdog EJF links Chinese fishing vessels in the Indian ocean with illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. China dismisses the allegations as “false.”

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Dar es Salaam. Tanzania will have to re-examine the activities of China’s distant water fleet operating in the East African nation’s waters after an investigation linked the fishing vessels from the East Asian nation with illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which threatens the welfare of Tanzania’s coastal communities and overall national economy.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a UK-based nonprofit fighting for a global secure environment, released the findings of its investigation earlier this month implicating Chinese vessels with several cases of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing as well as human rights abuses.

Efforts to get a comment from the Minister for Livestock and Fisheries Abdallah Ulega weren’t successful after multiple calls to his phone number went unanswered. 

China denies the allegations, with its Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning telling a press conference recently that the country “attaches great importance to the protection of [the] ecological environment and workers’ rights and interests.”

In its report titled TIDE OF INJUSTICE: Exploitation and Illegal Fishing on Chinese Vessels in the Southwest Indian Ocean, EJF revealed that the Chinese fishing fleet is responsible for systemic illegal fishing and human rights abuses in countries bordering the southwest Indian Ocean, including Tanzania.


The investigation uncovered many illegalities, including shark finning, which is explicitly prohibited by Tanzania’s Deep Seas Fisheries Management and Development Regulations, 2021, which states that “any fishing vessel in the [Exclusive Economic Zone] […] shall not (a) engage in commercial fishing of sharks; (b) engage in shark finning in the course of fishing.”

READ MORE: Senior USAFRICOM Official Robert Scott Visits Tanzania To Talk Maritime Security

But EJF found that 35 of the 44 crew interviewed during the investigation reported to have witnessed shark finning. The crew revealed that sharks were finned systematically across the vessels, with their fins removed and their bodies thrown back into the ocean. 

They would be caught regularly, with crew using phrases such as “It was frequently raised”; “very often”; “hundreds”; “in one night was thirty at a minimum” to describe the situation.

Fins would be hidden on board the boats, often in special compartments or freezers of the senior crew. “[The fin] was put in a separate freezer in the captain’s [room],” crew members recounted. “It was obvious that we hid it, we had to keep it hidden. Because when we were heading to Mauritius, there was an inspection so we had to hide it very well […] because sharks are protected animals.”

It was mentioned by two interviewees, who had worked on the same vessel, that when operating in Tanzania, law enforcement officers boarded the vessel for an inspection. 

As the captain saw authorities approaching on his satellite, he ordered the crew to discreetly dispose of the fins on board. “It was thrown away slowly, little by little before the police approached the vessel,” one crew member recalled. “The captain ordered us to do it.”

READ MORE: Samia in China: Will China-Tanzania Relations Return to 2013’s Heights?

Around 40 kilos of fins were described to have been thrown, the EJF investigation revealed. 

The interviewees also described hiding and disposing of artificial lights used to attract tuna: “After that [throwing the shark fins], they hid the line lights […] They said it was prohibited and not allowed. The light was illegal […] Some were thrown away, some were covered.”

Three to four baskets of artificial lights were reported on this vessel. This is despite their use seemingly being illegal in Tanzanian law, according to Regulation 14.1 of the Deep Sea Fisheries Management and Development Regulations, 2021.

The investigation also uncovered mistreatment and abuse of crew members, many of them Indonesians and Filipinos. The crew reported physical violence; intimidation and threats, often in the form of verbal abuse; retention of identity documents; deception; abusive working and living conditions and excessive working hours.

“While the Chinese [distant-water fleet] is certainly not the only culprit for unsustainable fishing activities in the [southwest of Indian ocean], the high percentage of Chinese vessels that are linked with cruel and illegal activities, paired with China’s onshore and often opaque financial and political presence in the region, indicates that closer attention to their activities is required,” the EJF investigation concluded.

READ MORE: GovT Wants Fishing to Contribute More to the Tanzania Economy

“This must involve, at a minimum, enshrining transparency measures throughout relevant fisheries regulations and frameworks to enable all stakeholders to better understand who is fishing, how, where and for what,” it added.

False allegations

During her April 12, 2024, press conference, China’s Ning said that her country follow a “zero tolerance” policy towards violations of laws and regulations. 

She said that China makes sure that crew members receive the working conditions and remuneration they deserve in accordance with the law. She added: “We oppose false allegations and smears which have no factual ground at all.”

EJF’s revelations come at a time when Tanzania is reported to lose billions of money due to illegal fishing in its lakes and oceans, with the Controllar and Auditor General (CAG) Charles Kicheere urging authorities last week to take appropriate meassures to curb the loss.

CAG’s performance audit report on the management of fisheries resources in Tanzania found that the East African nation lost Sh15.2 billions, or US$5.9 million, between 2019 and 2023, revealing that 72.99 per cent of operating fishing vessels in the country are unregistered and unlicensed.

Fishing sector contributes about 1.8 per cent of Tanzania’s gross domestic product and employs about six million people in the country, a contribution so low that President Samia Suluhu Hassan expressed dissatisfaction with earlier this year, calling on relevant authorities to develop strategies that would change the status quo.

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One Response

  1. I would NEVER believe what the Chinese say!!! They are dishonest and deceitful-they should be strictly sanctioned-especially since they are giving weapons to Russia to continue the assault on the Ukraine!

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