Chinese fishing plant in Torres Strait raises alarm for Australian industry and islanders

Aaron Smith
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Artyom Ivanov/Tass</span>
Photograph: Artyom Ivanov/Tass

A $200m Chinese-built fishery plant planned for a Papua New Guinean island could allow Chinese-backed commercial vessels to fish legally in the Torres Strait, and has raised concerns about unregulated fishing in the same waters, potentially threatening the Australian industry and local PNG fishers.

China’s ministry of commerce this month announced a $527m kina (A$204m) deal to establish a “comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park” project on Daru Island, in PNG’s Western Province.

The memorandum of understanding, which offered little detail, was signed by the Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company, PNG’s fisheries minister, Lino Tom, and the governor of Western Province, Taboi Yoto. The plant is expected to serve as a hub for fishing vessels coming into the region, and to process catches taken from the Torres Strait.

Related: Alarm over discovery of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels near Galápagos Islands

Under the Torres Strait Treaty, Australia and PNG are allowed to fish a shared area of the waters known as the protected zone, which straddles the fishing zones of the two countries.

Inside Australia’s zone, PNG boats may take 25% of the permitted tropical lobster catch and 40% of Spanish mackerel.

To date PNG has not had the capacity to commercially fish its share of these quotas, but the deal could attract Chinese funding for PNG-flagged vessels.

Warren Entsch, the MP for the north Queensland electorate of Leichhardt, said: “It’s certainly going to impact on our side of the fishery … but at the end of the day there is a treaty arrangement there.

“The biggest losers are going to be the treaty villages [of PNG’s Western Province]. They have no welfare system and bugger-all support from the PNG government. When they go out to fish to feed their families, there’s going to be nothing left.”

The Fuzhou-based Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company, established in 2011, has a long involvement with PNG, mainly in fishing and seafood processing.

But Entsch said he held concerns over China’s track record in the region.

“You only have to look at what China has done in other places in the Pacific to ask the question of whose best interest it is in,” he said. “Is it in the best interest of the broader PNG community? I suspect not.”

Torres Strait community fisheries representative Kenny Bedford said: “There are significant implications for Australian Torres Strait fisheries.

“Under the current catch sharing arrangements, it is likely PNG will be moving in this partnership to access their full entitlement rights [under] the Torres Strait treaty,” Bedford said.

Aside from the catches allowed under the treaty, fish resources on the PNG side of the border were “seriously depleted, unmonitored and poorly managed”, Bedford said.

“The traditional owners of land and sea along the Western Province treaty villages have no say or control over what is being harvested or by whom.”

Tom said the plant was a “priority project” for PNG.

“Under the influence of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy, Zhonghong Fishery Company decided to invest in PNG. This large investment project will bring employment to the local area and promote the economic development of Western Province and PNG.”

China’s ambassador to PNG, Xue Bing, said the company’s investment “will definitely enhance PNG’s ability to comprehensively develop and utilise its own fishery resources”.

The Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company did not respond to a request for comment.

Chinese fishing fleets have devastated local fish stocks in other parts of the world. 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.

At their closest point, PNG and Australia are separated by less than 4km of water: the border communities are deeply intertwined, with free movement between islands (outside Covid restrictions) and close sharing of resources.

The Torres Strait Sea and Land Council Gur A Baradharaw Kod represents traditional inhabitants throughout the island communities. Its chair, Ned David, said the organisation was “extremely concerned” with the implications of the plan, including an increased risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

“We have raised a number of concerns over the years with Afma [the Australian Fisheries Management Authority] that we have had very little policing of the fishery,” David said.

Related: Tangled sharks and reefs under nets – 2020's most powerful ocean photos

“We already have a number of Chinese operators in some of our communities and I’ve asked that this is looked at and that some sort of due diligence be conducted around what I would categorise as a rogue element in the business.

“We’d like to see the level of monitoring and restrictions the commonwealth has taken on the border for Covid continued in terms of policing and presence to ensure that nobody is pillaging and plundering our resources, on our side of the border.”

Asked whether Afma had the capacity to monitor larger, professional fishing fleets in the strait, a spokesman said the existing legal framework would remain “the basis for continued successful management”.

An Australian Border Force spokesperson told the Guardian it worked closely with its PNG counterparts: “The ABF undertakes a range of enforcement action, including boarding vessels, to respond to any threat to civil maritime security.”

A north Queensland fishing industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many in the industry were concerned by the proposed park on Daru, but noted the project was so far no more than a memorandum of understanding.

“[But] this is definitely a warning shot across our bow. I think China will be watching closely how we will respond.”