Chinese tuna fleet doubles in 2 years

China has sent sophisticated fishing boats into waters north of New Zealand, creating fears it is plundering the world's last great tuna stock in a bid to stake a claim to the region's resources.

Official figures show a 125 per cent increase in two years in the size of China's South Pacific tuna fleet, with many new boats added.

In a sign of increasing concern, a United States Navy carrier strike group sailed through the north Tasman Sea last month on a mission to “patrol and secure protected fishing areas in the southern Pacific” according the US-based Navy Times.

The mission was revealed after the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, cruiser Bunker Hill and destroyer Halsey reached Pearl Harbour.

The jump in Chinese boats operating around the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and in international waters between New Zealand and Fiji, has some in the fishing industry concerned.

“We all worry about the sheer number of vessels, but their technology means they now have double the firepower of five years ago in terms of how many hooks they can set,” Fiji Fish Marketing Ltd operator Graham Southwick said.

The Forum Fisheries Agency says as of this month there were 241 China-flagged vessels approved to fish, ahead of Taiwan's 221. Two years ago, China had only 107 boats long-line fishing for bigeye and yellowfin tuna.

In addition, many vessels flagged to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Kiribati are actually owned by Chinese companies.

“It has become constant, not only are they here, there are many more on the way,” Southwick said.

He said the Chinese boats all received about $300,000 a year as a fuel subsidy from Beijing, and were built with 0.5 per cent loans, many of them to keep shipyards working.

“It is a long-term game to get a maximum number of boats in the South Pacific.”

Vanuatu and the Solomons have issued more than 200 licences, each worth about $50,000 a year, to Chinese boats.

The economics of tuna fishing meant they could not make money without the subsidies, Southwick said. “It's not about making money, it's about positioning, getting as many boats into the Pacific as possible. When the time comes for quotas, and slicing up the cake, China will be able to say it has had 400 boats here.”

He said a subsidised fleet could keep fishing long after a normal commercial fleet would have had to give up. “The Chinese will fish until there is one tuna left in the ocean, and, since the Government is paying the bills, the fish won't stand a chance.”

The region's main science monitor, the Secretariat for the Pacific Community, has called for a 32 per cent cut in the bigeye tuna catch.

The Navy Times reported the Carl Vinson mission saw the fleet pass through the Bass Strait, up between New Zealand and New Caledonia, and through the fishing zones of small island states. It said Oceania was important not only to US economic prosperity, but also to Pacific nations.

The “Tuna Belt” runs along the equator and supplies 57 per cent of the world's tuna.

The Navy Times said the Carl Vinson's aircraft flew more than five dozen patrols in the region, and reported Captain John Steinberger's belief tuna patrols would be an “enduring mission” for the US Navy.

Sunday Star Times