Observers

Iranian fishermen operating in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea have seen their business take a massive hit with the arrival of Chinese trawlers. The France 24 Observers team has been able to locate these trawlers in Iranian waters, even though some local authorities insist that they aren’t operating there. Our team also spoke to numerous fishermen about the environmental and economic impact of these boats that often use illegal methods.

For the past five years, Iranian fishermen have been complaining that Chinese fishing trawlers are depleting fishing resources in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

Local fishing authorities have refuted these accusations for years, going so far as to deny that there are any Chinese trawlers operating in these waters and stating that there is no fishing agreement between Iran and these Chinese companies.

However, it isn’t hard to prove that these trawlers are operating in Iranian waters. Numerous Iranian fishermen have taken to Instagram to post images of them. Some claim that the trawlers have even attacked their fishing boats. The France 24 Observers team also analyzed navigation data documenting the presence of these trawlers in Iranian territorial waters.

Video of a Chinese trawler in Iranian territorial waters posted on Instagram by an Iranian fisherman.
 
The France 24 Observers team analyzed satellite data available online and spotted more than ten Chinese fishing trawlers operating in Iranian territorial waters on July 15, as indicated by their GPS coordinates.
 

“Chinese boats attacked us with water canons and distress flares”

Khorshid (a pseudonym as the young fisherman we interviewed wanted to stay anonymous for security reasons) lives and works in Jask, a port in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the regions most affected by Chinese trawlers.

We started to notice them about five years ago. They started arriving little by little, and now there are more and more of them.

We complained to local fishing organizations, who maintained that Chinese trawlers were only operating in international waters [Editor’s note: where they are allowed] and it was impossible that they were fishing in Iranian waters. That’s why we decide to start filming them and prove, using their GPS coordinates, that they were in Iranian waters. We showed the proof to authorities but nobody did anything. Slowly, we began seeing more and more of these boats. They even started attacking us with water canons and distress flares because they don’t want us fishing in the same area.

 
These Chinese trawlers were captured on camera while fishing in Iranian territorial waters.

Recently, the fishing organization told us that these trawlers only had the authorization to fish lanternfish [Editor’s note: Iranian fishermen don’t fish the lanternfish living in Iran’s coastal waters because Iranians don’t eat them for cultural and sometimes religious reasons]. However, we noticed that the Chinese trawlers scoop up whatever they can in their nets and not just lanternfish.

For a long time, we tried to ignore the presence of these trawlers, but today, it has become impossible. Today, we are catching 50% less fish than the haul we were getting before these boats arrived in 2015.

According to official estimates published by the Iranian media, small scale fishermen have seen a 50% decrease in their yield over the past five years, while industrial fishing operations had seen a 75% impact
These Chinese trawlers were caught on camera in Iranian waters. These last few sell their goods in ports in the Emirates according to onlineline information.

Our Observer says that the Chinese trawlers are more efficient at fishing for several reasons.:

The trawlers are equipped with a sonar system that can locate schools of fish. They use huge nets that scoop up everything in their wake. That’s totally different to our method-- we target specific fish and our nets allow the smallest fish to escape.

“Some boats change their name to something Persian and fly the Iranian flag”

We also respect the end of the fishing season in Iran [Editor’s note: In Iran, as in many other countries in the world, fishing is banned at certain times of year to allow them to reproduce and thus preserve the natural resources of the Persian Gulf.] These Chinese trawlers don’t respect it and continue to destroy our resources.

Since last year, Iranian media outlets have been reporting on the presence of these trawlers, who some believe are working with local officials. Some local officials or former members of local fisheries have even created shell companies-- these are Chinese boats with Chinese fishermen aboard but they have changed the names of the trawlers to something Iranian and they fly the Iranian flag.
 
According to our Observer, some Chinese ships operate through an Iranian shell company and using a Persian name.
 

Several Iranian media outlets have reported that local officials, many of them former or current members of the organization of fisheries of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, agreed to collaborate with Chinese fishing operations via shell companies in exchange for a 6% profit from the yield of the Chinese trawlers.

Khorshid, the fisherman, continues:

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the Chinese who are carrying out mass fishing operations. Many Iranians also use trawlers. They have to do that in order to withstand competition.

The fishery organization turns a blind eye to this practice because, if they go after Iranian boats for these poor practices, then they will be criticized for not doing the same thing for Chinese boats. On the other hand, the authorities in Tehran don’t really have an incentive to crack down on Iranian fishing operations, because they generate a lot of money. They don’t want to make anyone unhappy.

"Iranian fishermen must adapt to survive the presences of the Chinese."
 
Chinese trawlers with Persian names fish in Iranian territorial waters and sell their merchandise in China according to information on their websites.
 
There are still Iranian officials within the organization of fisheries that do their job well, thank goodness, but this sector is in crisis. There are fewer and fewer fishermen and they don’t have enough boats or even enough money to buy the fuel they need. lt is impossible to be competitive when the trawlers are in the game.

“This is no less than the destruction of marine life in the Persian Gulf”

Small scale fishermen aren’t the only victims of this intensive, industrial-scale fishing in the Persian Gulf. Farzad (not his real name) is an expert in marine life in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea:
 
What’s happening in this region is no less than the destruction of marine life. These trawlers use a technique called bottom trawling, which means they scrape the sea floor. Everything that they destroy on the sea floor then rises to the surface. This method of fishing is illegal in almost every country 

When you are bottom trawling, you don’t target certain fish. Instead, large nets catch and kill everything within a radius of hundreds of metres. In the Persian Gulf, the primary victims of this type of fishing include dolphins, baby sharks and sea turtles. Both sea turtles and certain sharks are in danger of extinction because of this practice.

The bottom trawling carried out by these Chinese companies have two key negative impacts. First, they catch everything, including the fish that are eaten in our region, which means there are fewer and fewer fish available on the local market. Next, they also catch the small fish that were a source of food for bigger predators. These predators become weaker and then they can’t reproduce, which means that there are even less fish in the region.

An Iranian fisherman films trawlers: we hear them say, "The authorities say that trawlers aren't in Iranian territorial waters, but look! They are certainly here!"
 
Usually, these Chinese boats operate by turning off their navigation systems [Editor’s note: So that they can go undetected] and then fish as much as they can. If they are spotted, they can be fined up to 80 million toman [Editor’s note: Equivalent to 3,200 euros, this is the fine for turning off your navigation system]. But for them, it’s a paltry sum. I received information that there were at least 60 Chinese trawlers fishing in this region and, according to our estimates, they fish about 240,000 tons of fish a year, versus all Iranian fishing operations combined, which bring in a total of 220,000 tons.
 
Last year, the navy wing of the Revolutionary Guards confiscated the cargo of at least 19 trawlers that were operating in Iranian waters-- most of them Chinese. A TV report broadcast by media outlets with close links to the government bragged about the seizure of these boats, showing that the trawlers had fished for all different marine animals and not just the lanternfish they are authorised to fish.

This year alone, Iranian authorities have stopped 34 trawlers fishing in illegal zones, without specifying if the boats in question were Iranian or foreign-owned. Iranian media outlets reported that these trawlers were kept stationary for a month before being allowed to fish again.

 
Article by Ershad Alijani (@ErshadAlijani)