Authorities in Palau said on Monday they recently detained a Chinese fishing vessel and its 28 crew members for illegally fishing in the tiny Pacific nation’s waters.
The Chinese fishing boat was allegedly harvesting sea cucumbers illegally when it was “intercepted by a patrol boat at Helen Reef, in Palau’s territorial waters, and escorted to the main island of Koror,” Palau’s Division of Marine Law and Enforcement (DMLE) said.
“They did have sea cucumber on there … it’s estimated about 500 pounds (225 kilograms),” DMLE director Victor Remengesau told reporters on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Known in the international market as beche-de-mer, sea cucumber is highly coveted among fishing crews across the Pacific Ocean. The marine species may be sold for up to $800 per kilogram in select Asian markets such as Hong Kong.
Palau authorities detained the Chinese fishing vessel along with six smaller boats; the intercepted fleet had a crew of 28 Chinese fishermen, all of whom are undergoing a 14-day quarantine in Palau. The Palau patrol boat that caught the Chinese fleet had its own crew of 19 men. They are also undergoing a two-week quarantine after coming into contact with the Chinese fishermen, who are reportedly from China’s southern island province of Hainan.
Palau, a tiny western Pacific archipelago, is currently one of the only places in the world that remains free of the Chinese coronavirus. Remengesau said Palau authorities have not yet decided whether to charge the Chinese crew with illegal fishing as they do not want to prolong their stay on the islands.
“That’s one of the things that we’re discussing,” the DMLE director said.
“We don’t want them any longer than necessary in Palau,” Remengesau, who is also the brother of Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau Jr., added.
Palau was forced to balance its concerns over the crew bringing the Chinese coronavirus into the archipelago with its desire to defend the nation’s territorial waters from foreign incursion, Remengesau explained.
“It’s unlawful entry. We may care about Covid [Chinese coronavirus] and the spread of Covid, but we can’t just let people do whatever they want, and disguise [alleged illegal activity],” he told reporters on Monday.
The Chinese government has yet to issue a formal response to Palau’s detention of its nationals. Palau is allied with the East Asian island of Taiwan, currently one of China’s diplomatic rivals. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a renegade territory and has vowed to reunify the island with mainland China by force, if necessary. The Chinese government actively discourages other nations from recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty, which Palau continues to support. The archipelago is one of Taiwan’s four remaining allies in the Pacific region.
Palau intercepted the Chinese fishing fleet this week as part of its ban on foreign commercial fishing vessels entering its waters. According to the Guardian on Monday, “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 homeports seeking new fields.”
“Having depleted fish stocks in domestic waters and encouraged by subsidies, China’s distant-water fishing fleets have been traveling farther and farther afield, and its companies have been building more and more vessels to meet the rising demand for seafood,” a report from the Overseas Development Institute revealed in June.
Chinese fishing fleets have recently ventured as far east as South America to pursue illegal fishing in other countries’ waters, including those of Ecuador and Peru this past summer. The Chilean Navy said on Tuesday it is currently monitoring 11 Chinese vessels suspected of illegally fishing in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).