By CHRIS DANIELS
Fears of a hundred-strong fleet of Chinese fishing ships setting up base in Fiji have prompted New Zealand diplomats to seek answers from Suva and Beijing.
New Zealand Government fisheries officials and local industry heads are worried that the Chinese Government wants to use Fiji as a new base for catching highly prized migratory fish species.
There are also suspicions the new fleet is willing to undermine recently agreed fishing conventions designed to protect the lucrative tuna fishery.
With much of Fijian political and business life in turmoil since the coup in May last year, anxiety exists that China is exploiting a vacuum left by New Zealand and Australian Government withdrawal from Fiji.
But China says it has been approached by the Fijians, hoping for investment in its fishing infrastructure.
Eric Barratt, managing director of New Zealand seafood giant Sanford, said such a base would mean a "big change in fishing patterns".
"Until now, the fishing of most of the migratory species has been at what has been considered a sustainable level. You pile in a hundred new Chinese vessels, that changes the equation.
"They are not planning, they're there. You can get photographs of some of the vessels that are setting up there. They're not the prettiest."
Diplomatic unease is thought to centre on an international agreement to take a "precautionary approach" under the new Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention. This approach was to have applied until more permanent arrangements for tuna fishing were finalised.
A new race for fish by an expanded Chinese tuna fleet would go against this agreement.
Industry fears of the Chinese expansion have been given credence by the manager of International Fishing for the Ministry of Fisheries, Jane Willing.
"We are aware of considerable increased Chinese interest in the area," she said. "And in terms of some sort of bilateral fisheries arrangement with China, we are quite concerned and we are following up through diplomatic channels."
Jane Willing said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was "looking at getting a response" from the Fijian Government.
Although Fiji was a sovereign nation, and could do whatever it liked within its own EEZ (exclusive economic zone), there was concern that the arrival of a new fishing fleet would affect the recently finalised tuna-fishing agreement, which included China and had yet to come into force.
A new fleet could be used to establish a "catch history" - in an attempt to secure larger fishing rights under new treaties.
Ships from the Northern Hemisphere were now looking for new places to fish. Many came from countries that paid subsidies to help support local boat-building industries, Jane Willing said.
China could be acting legitimately in trying to establish a catch interest, but New Zealand officials were still trying to get more information from both China and Fiji, she said.
One of the biggest players in Fijian fishing, Grahame Southwick, owner of Fiji Fish, said it had been hard to get any reliable information from the Fijian Government about the Chinese entering the market.
"It is very difficult to get an honest, accurate response to what has been signed - what agreements there are with the Chinese Government."
Likening the Chinese fishing fleet to "locusts" - Mr Southwick said past expansion into new fishing areas had shown a pattern of swamping territories with large numbers of ships, "showing scant regard for the long-term viability" of the industry.
Five years ago, Fiji had no Chinese fishing ships, now they accounted for two-thirds of the fleet.
Because these new fleets were supported by the Chinese Government, it was impossible for local companies to compete, he said. Unlike other companies, the Chinese did not hire local crews.
"I have no doubt they have taken advantage of the political situation in Fiji," said Mr Southwick.
He agreed that the withdrawal of the New Zealand, Australian and US Governments from Fiji had left a vacuum - one that China was more than willing to step into.
But Fijian Fisheries Director Maciu Lagibalavu said the Chinese were not about to take over Fijian fishing grounds.
The Fijian Government wanted to get local people owning the boats rather than relying on overseas companies to supply the ships.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Wellington, Qiu Xuejen, said reports that China would set up a fishing base in Fiji were "groundless".
"During Chinese Vice-Minister of Agriculture, Mr Wan Baorui's visit to Fiji in August, the Fijian side expressed the hope that the Chinese side could build some land facilities at Fijian ports for providing logistics support for Chinese fishing ships in the Fijian sea areas, and creating job opportunities for the local community," he said in an e-mail response to the Herald.
Qiu Xuejen said the Chinese "were considering this proposal".