- The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently announced sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies allegedly involved in human rights abuses and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing while operating in distant waters.
- One sanctioned company, Dalian Ocean Fishing Co., Ltd. (DOF), was the subject of two Mongabay investigations: one uncovered widespread human rights abuses, and the other exposed extensive illegal shark-finning operations within the DOF fleet of longline fishing vessels.
- China, which operates the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet and has a long history of fisheries offenses, denounced the sanctions, saying that it is a “responsible fishing country.”
The United States has sanctioned Chinese individuals and companies allegedly involved in human rights abuses and fishing violations while operating in other countries’ or international waters.
On Dec. 9, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced the sanctions targeting two individuals, Li Zhenyu and Xinrong Zhuo, and various companies, including Dalian Ocean Fishing Co., Ltd. (DOF), Nasdaq-listed Pingtan Marine Enterprise, Ltd. and eight firms affiliated with Pingtan. It also identified 157 Chinese-flagged fishing vessels linked to these companies.
The department reported numerous instances of abusive labor conditions and illegal fishing practices, including unlawful shark finning, on many vessels operating within the sanctioned companies’ networks.
“Treasury condemns the practices of those sanctioned today, which often involve the abuse of human rights, undermine fundamental labor and environmental standards, and harm the economic prospects of local populations in the Indo-Pacific,” Brian E. Nelson, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the statement announcing the sanctions. “These designations demonstrate how seriously we take the problem of illicit fishing and our commitment to holding the perpetrators of serious human rights abuses to account.”
These sanctions follow two Mongabay-led investigations of DOF, a company that has claimed to be China’s largest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan. In September 2021, Mongabay, Tansa and the Environmental Reporting Collective revealed that migrant workers on more than a dozen of DOF’s vessels suffered abuse, including being given inadequate food and water, being forced to work excessively, and being threatened with withheld pay if workers did not follow orders. Crew members from several vessels reported physical assaults by officers.
At least 10 workers across the DOF fleet died and dozens became ill in 2019 and 2020, likely due to nutrient imbalances arising from consuming a poor diet and contaminated water. As Mongabay reported, the workers, most of them Indonesian or Filipino, were not offered the same bottled water as the Chinese officers on board, but were instead forced to drink distilled seawater from a desalination machine that often came out “yellowish, rusty-smelling and salty,” according to the investigation.
Mongabay also reported that many workers never received their promised salaries, even months after concluding their employment on DOF vessels.
The second Mongabay investigation, published in November 2022, found that many DOF vessels operating in international waters deliberately used illegal gear to unlawfully catch and cut off the fins of sharks, including threatened species. It found that five of DOF’s longline boats harvested about 5.1 metric tons of dried shark fin from the Pacific Ocean in 2019, indicating a catch of about 31,000 individual sharks. That amount equates to a more significant estimated shark catch than what China reported for the entirety of its longline fleet at the same time and place.
In its announcement, the U.S. Department of the Treasury noted that one DOF vessel, the Long Xing 629, was only licensed to catch tuna but had also illegally taken more than 700 kilograms (1,540 pounds) of shark fins, including from endangered sharks — a finding Mongabay first reported. The department also referenced other findings from Mongabay investigations, including the fact that human rights abuses, such as physical assault, malnutrition, overwork, and the withholding of pay, occurred across DOF’s fleet.
China, which operates the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, has a long history of human rights abuses and destructive fisheries practices. A report released in March 2022 found that the nation’s distant-water fleet was involved in 300 confirmed and 240 suspected fisheries offenses between 2015 and 2019.
On Dec. 12, Mao Ning, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a press conference that China is a “responsible fishing country” and that the U.S. is in “no position to impose unwarranted sanctions on other countries or act as a ‘world policeman,’” according to a transcript posted on a Chinese Embassy website.
“We have always worked with other members of the international community to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and have done a lot in effectively combating illegal fishing,” Mao said.
Previously, in May 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a withhold-release order against DOF, citing indications that the company’s vessels used forced labor. The order directed customs officials to detain DOF products and prohibit their import into the U.S. unless the company could demonstrate they were not produced using forced labor.
The newly announced sanctions, which the Treasury Department will impose not only for human rights abuses but also for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, freezes the U.S.-based assets of the named individuals and companies, and prohibits trade or business dealings with them within the U.S. or by U.S. entities.
This is the first time the Treasury Department has sanctioned a company listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, Pingtan, according to the press release. It also notes that the Chinese government heavily subsidized both DOF and a Pingtan subsidiary.
The sanctions are part of a larger U.S. effort to combat corruption. Also on Dec. 9, celebrated as International Anti-Corruption Day, the department imposed sanctions on dozens of other individuals and entities, from the Western Balkans, Belarus and Russia, to Liberia, Guatemala, Myanmar and Iran.
“Corrupt actors and human rights abusers both rely on deficiencies in the international financial system to perpetrate their activities,” Undersecretary Nelson said in a statement. “By exposing the egregious behavior of these actors, we can help disrupt their activities, dismantle their networks, and starve them of resources.”
Correction (12/16/2022): This article has been amended to clarify that it is Pingtan that is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
Banner image: The Long Xing 621, one of DOF’s boats, hauls up a shark in the Atlantic Ocean. The photos were taken by the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which encountered the vessel during an expedition in September 2019. Image by Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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