The activities of a fleet of Chinese flagged fishing vessels have been heavily reported in the South African media this week in response to reports on KarmicSangoma of illegal fishing. Concerns were raised by Mark Hicks who noticed the Lu Huang Yuan Yu fleet travelling close to the Transkei coastline in an area known to be holding sardines amassing for their annual migration. The vessels could be seen on satellite tracking applications in the daytime, but at night their AIS transponders were turned off so that they effectively disappeared from public view.

The South African Department for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries investigated the activities of the vessels and in a radio interrogation conducted by the inspectors and were told that the fleet were sailing from China heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite initial indications of cooperation, the fleet scattered under cover of darkness and the South African authorities, with a single patrol vessel close to the fleet, were only able to detain the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 186.

Now in Cape Town, the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 186 has been inspected and found to have no fish on board and with gear stowed in holds. The vessel is believed to have contravened the Marine Living Resources Act by entering the South African Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) without the authority of a valid permit; failure to comply with the lawful instruction as given by a fishery control officer; and not facilitating the safe boarding, entry and inspection of the fishing vessel, resulting in the seizure of its gear, equipment, stores and cargo.

Six of the Lu Huang Yuan Yu vessels (185, 187, 188, 189, 197 and 198) that fled from the South African authorities were last tracked outside of South African waters heading north towards Namibia. A further two vessels form the fleet are believed to be in the Indian Ocean.

Per Erik Bergh, Stop Illegal Fishing, said “we have sent out alerts to the West Africa Task Force in the Gulf of Guinea and FISH-i Africa, the task force that operates in the Western Indian Ocean, so all countries will be on the lookout for these vessels. Failure to comply with the authorities in South Africa has increased suspicions that the vessels had something to hide. The opportunity to gather evidence may now have passed on this occasion, but by behaving in this way the fleet are now considered to be ‘high risk’ and their movements and activities will be closely watched.”