BEIJING — Chinese fishing fleets, driven by plummeting catches close to home, are flocking to distant West African waters, where they engage in ecologically ruinous bottom trawling, subterfuge and other illegal activities that threaten marine resources in a region already under pressure from overfishing, according to a report issued on Wednesday by Greenpeace.
The study, the result of a two-year investigation, accuses hundreds of Chinese-owned or Chinese-flagged vessels of taking advantage of weak enforcement by African governments to indiscriminately net untold tons of fish off the coasts of Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
Among the worst offenders, Greenpeace said, is the state-owned China National Fisheries Corporation, whose ship operators were said to have lied about their locations, underreported the amount of fish in their holds and used damaging fishing methods that are largely banned in Chinese waters. The report said that government regulators in Beijing had been lax in enforcing regulations that govern overseas fishing.
“China is exporting to Africa the kind of destructive fishing practices that depleted local fishing grounds off the Chinese coast,” said Rashid Kang, the director of the China Ocean and Forests campaign at Greenpeace. “At a time when China talks about win-win partnerships with African governments and is concerned with improving its international image, these kinds of practices damage marine resources, threaten local livelihoods and undermine China’s soft power.”
Chinese interest in the waters off West Africa has soared in recent years, prompted by a vast expansion of the country’s industrial fishing fleet, mounting competition and declining stocks of marine life in the coastal waters off China. Many long-distance fishing companies have been encouraged to sail farther afield by generous government subsidies.
Greenpeace said there were more than 450 Chinese-owned fishing vessels operating in Africa, up from just a dozen in 1985.
The group said nearly a fifth of the country’s foreign fishing fleet now operates off the coast of West Africa.
China’s Foreign Ministry, responding to the Greenpeace report, said Chinese fishing vessels that operate in the exclusive economic zones of African countries abide by the agreements they have struck with national governments.
“These ships and companies contribute to local employment, increase tax revenue and contribute to the local economy, and are thus welcomed by local governments and people,” Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a regular news conference on Wednesday.
Much of the research was conducted by a Greenpeace vessel, the Esperanza, that observed Chinese fishing boats as they worked the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa.
Last fall, for example, it recorded illegal fishing by 12 Chinese ships operating in the territorial waters of Guinea at a time when the government was grappling with the Ebola epidemic. The report cited boats that fished in prohibited areas, lacked licenses and used illegal nets with tiny mesh openings.
Investigators documented 74 of 92 fishing boats that had turned off the tracking devices mandated by international maritime law; others had been manipulated to give out incorrect locations, including five ships that claimed to be operating in Mexican waters.
In an apparent effort to reduce the licensing fees paid to governments, the report said, a majority of the 59 ships operated by China National Fisheries Corporation in West Africa had underreported their gross tonnage by as much as 60 percent.
Reached by phone, an employee at the state-owned company would not comment on the report’s findings. Employees of two other companies cited by the report denied that they engaged in illegal fishing.
The Greenpeace report also highlighted what it described as lax oversight by African governments, desperate for hard currency, that have eagerly entered into agreements with Chinese fishing companies.
Among the biggest losers, Greenpeace said, were local African fisherman, who complain of diminishing catches and increased costs.
“They are forced to travel further to catch fish and often have to compete for space with industrial trawlers in dangerous waters, increasing the risk of deaths at sea,” the report said.
Patrick Zuo and Kiki Zhao contributed research.