SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese fishing boats have been illegally fishing off West Africa, Greenpeace said on Wednesday, adding that Chinese companies expanded operations in Africa from 13 vessels in 1985 to 462 vessels in 2013, but the government said they are within the law.
One fifth of China's distant water fishing fleet now operated in Africa, Greenpeace said in a report, and was dominated by bottom trawlers, "one of the most destructive fishing gears in the modern fishing industry."
Over a 10-year period, 183 illegal fishing cases involving 118 Chinese vessels were reported in six West African countries - Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
Within 26 days at sea, Greenpeace discovered an average of one new illegal Chinese fishing case every two days, noting these infractions were likely "just the tip of the iceberg".
China's foreign ministry said Chinese fishing companies in Africa strictly abided by the law and by deals they have signed with governments in Africa.
These companies had contributed to local economies by "paying taxes, providing jobs and increasing incomes, which is welcomed by local governments and their people" said ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Wednesday.
But Greenpeace argued Chinese fishing operations in West Africa were a "double standard", as China had improved sustainability provisions in its own domestic legislation while continuing to defy laws in Africa.
Several of the illegal fishing cases occurred when African nations such as Guinea were trying to deal with Ebola, and as China offered assistance to African countries during the outbreak.
Many of the vessels tracked had not installed or turned on their Automatic Identification System devices, a system used globally to record data from ships' activities.
The report singled out China National Fisheries Corporation, the country's largest distant water fishing company, as a repeat offender.
Along with Dalian Lian Run Overseas Fishery Corp and Shandong Overseas Fisheries Development Co. Ltd., the company also under-declared its vessels' gross tonnage, the report said, with its actual fishing capacity exceeding its authorised limit by 61 percent in the first half of 2014.
The companies did not respond immediately when contacted for comment.