A statement issued by the US Embassy by Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland commends the Government of Palau on its arrest of the Chinese vessel poaching off of Helen Reef, and calls on countries around the world to stand against the “illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, rule-breaking, and willful environmental degradation” of Chinese fishing vessels.
The statement comes a week after the foreign vessel was intercepted by the Remeliik II and brought back to Koror. The twenty-eight Chinese nationals, who had allegedly gathered around 500 pounds of sea cucumber in the protected area, currently remain in quarantine aboard their vessel. They have not yet been charged, although last week President Remengesau insinuated that they likely will be.
“Along with Australia and Japan, the US works closely with Palau’s Maritime Law Enforcement Center and we steadfastly support Palau’s efforts to protect its territorial sovereignty and prevent People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged vessels from engaging in IUU fishing,” the statement says.
Ambassador Niland goes on to condemn the “flagrant disregard for coastal state sovereignty” and “irresponsible fishing practices” of Chinese-flagged vessels, which he says is particularly damaging to Palau, where some communities are highly-reliant on fishing. “PRC’s subsidized fishing fleet routinely violates the sovereign rights and jurisdictions of coastal states, fishes without permission, and overfishes license agreements,” the statement says.
The vessel caught at Helen Reef is believed to have been from Hainan Province, a collection of islands in Southern China.
China’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet is the largest national DWF fleet in the world. According to a report issued by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) earlier this year, some estimates of China’s DWF fleet put it at close to 17 thousand vessels strong. The majority of them are privately-owned by small or medium-sized enterprises, rather than government entities. However, the Chinese Government subsidizes fishing through tax exemptions for things like fuel, to the value of $16.5 billion every year, a number which China has pledged to reduce by 60 percent.
In 2017, in response to global concerns over environmental destruction caused by Chinese-flagged fishing vessels, China pledged to reduce the size of its DWF fleet to 3,000 by 2020. However, evidence suggests that China still has a long way to go before achieving this goal, and many countries continue to call on China to be more active in monitoring and regulating the actions of fishing vessels from its country.
This comes as tensions have been increasing between the US and China, a trend which has only been exacerbated during the COVID pandemic. The statement has been one of many by US representatives in Palau condemning Chinese interference in the Pacific. During his August visit, former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper brought attention to the “ongoing destabilizing activities [of China] in the region”, and previous press releases issued by the US Embassy have highlighted “China’s maritime bullying” in the region.
It has also coincided with the US playing a more active role in the monitoring and defense of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Sea Dragon aerial surveillance system, a US Air Force program, is set to be launched in the coming year and will assist the Remeliik II in locating illegal vessels in Palau’s waters. The program uses a Cessna 337 “Skymaster” aircraft which can provide high-res aerial photographs of illegal activity, and uses radar to monitor over 35,000 square kilometers of ocean an hour.
The US Embassy has also purchased land in Sonsorol State to accommodate helicopter landings and military drills. This new military presence in the Southwest Islands is said to be of “strategic value” by the Embassy, and is believed to be part of an expanding strategy to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. In October of this year, the Marine Corps and Navy participated in Operation Noble Fury on Okinawa and other Japanese islands, which consisted of “island-hopping” drills to prepare for a theoretical military engagement with China.
The US has been particularly critical of China’s militarization in the South China Sea, which include disputed waters.

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