A Chinese fishing vessel and its 28 crew have been detained in Palau, authorities said, creating a delicate diplomatic situation for the tiny Pacific nation, which is allied with Beijing’s rival Taiwan.
The boat, alleged to have been illegally harvesting sea cucumber, was intercepted by a patrol boat at Helen Reef, in Palau’s territorial waters, and escorted to the main island of Koror.
“They did have sea cucumber on there ... it’s estimated about 500 pounds (225kg),” said Victor Remengesau, director of Palau’s division of marine law and enforcement.
Sea cucumber – known on international markets as beche-de-mer – is a lucrative harvest for fishing crews across the Pacific. A Samoan court heard this year the animals fetch up to US$800 a kilogram in Asian markets, citing a Pacific Community report.
Chinese fishing fleets have been venturing further, and for longer, into the Pacific in search of new fishing grounds in recent months and years. But this is the first time a Chinese crew has been intercepted and detained in Palau’s territorial waters.
The intercepted fishing vessel, and six smaller boats, have all been detained by Palau.
Remengesau said the Chinese fishermen and 19 crew from the patrol boat that caught them were undergoing 14 days quarantine in Palau, one of the few places in the world that remains free of Covid-19.
Remengesau, the brother of Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau Jr, said it had not yet been decided whether to charge the fishermen, who are believed to be from southern China’s Hainan province.
“That’s one of the things that we’re discussing,” he said. “We don’t want them any longer than necessary in Palau.”
Remengesau said Palau had to balance its concerns over the crew bringing Covid into the archipelago, while defending the country’s territorial waters from incursion.
“It’s unlawful entry. We may care about Covid and the spread of Covid, but we can’t just let people do whatever they want, and disguise [alleged illegal activity].”
China has not yet made a formal response to the detention of its nationals.
Palau, long regarded as a pioneer in marine conservation, has banned foreign commercial fishing vessels from its waters.
But there is increasing pressure on Pacific states to closely monitor their territorial waters from incursions, as fishing fleets, of which China’s is the largest, venture further and further from home ports seeking new fields.
A report from the London-based Overseas Development Institute this year said: “Having depleted fish stocks in domestic waters and encouraged by subsidies, China’s distant-water fishing fleets have been travelling farther and farther afield, and its companies have been building more and more vessels to meet the rising demand for seafood.”
In August, just off the Galapagos Islands, an armada of nearly 300 Chinese vessels logged 73,000 hours of fishing in a month, hauling in thousands of tonnes of squid and fish.
Remengesau said a similar foreign fishing boat to the one intercepted was reported in Palauan waters in September, but by the time rangers’ patrol boats arrived, the fishing vessel had left.
The fishing vessel was intercepted by an Australian-supplied Guardian-class patrol boat, only delivered to Palau in September.
Palau, an archipelago nation of about 500 islands and 18,000 people, is one of Taiwan’s four remaining allies in the Pacific and only 15 worldwide.
China, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory, has shown its displeasure at Palau’s diplomatic links in the past, implementing an unofficial tourism boycott in 2018.
Palau is also tightly allied to America, one of the Pacific states that has signed a compact of free association with the US. The president has asked the US military to build a base on Palauan territory.
With Agence France-Presse