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Transoceanic Fishers: Multiple mobilities in and out of the South China Sea

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TransOcean (Transoceanic Fishers: Multiple mobilities in and out of the South China Sea)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

The South China Sea (SCS) is a bitterly contested maritime battleground – not just for state sovereignty, oil and gas but, perhaps above all, for the marine resources on which large populations in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia depend for their fish-based protein diet and for income. The local and geopolitical implications of this glocalised competition for resources have been widely addressed in academic debates, but the knock-on effects of this competition on distant oceanic spaces remains largely understudied. Since 2016, the number of Chinese vessels fishing in East- and West-African coastal waters has increased rapidly, leading to a clear erosion of marine resources beyond the SCS. On the other side of the globe, Vietnamese fishing fleets have been officially designated a growing threat to Pacific islands fisheries and their countries’ food security by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Forum Agency. While a few authors have noted that both Chinese and Vietnamese fishers take the destructive pattern of harvest and trade in highly valuable marine species beyond the SCS, much of their attention has been devoted to the environmental impact and the scale of this marine expansion. Such quantitative assessments of globalizing fisheries give us an idea of the scale of the problem in terms of vessel tonnage and catch, harvest of endangered species and unsustainable fishing methods, but they contribute little to our understanding of the actual modalities of this transoceanic expansion and the changes it causes in fisheries in Oceania and Africa. While we are beginning to recognise that these forms of exploitation are happening in other oceans, we still have no knowledge what exactly happens and how.

TransOcean seeks to analyze and theorize how fishers move in and out of categories of legal and illegal; of state and non-state; of fisher, poacher, trader and smuggler in their present transoceanic expansion across different temporal and geographical scales. TransOcean focuses specifically on encounters between Chinese and African fishers in East and West Africa and between Vietnamese and Pacific fishers in Oceania. What connects these distant places and people is China’s growing demand for marine goods and Vietnam’s expanding consumption of endangered species through common networks of trade. TransOcean fills the urgent analytical gap by paying attention to the global effects of China’s and Vietnam’s enduring culinary and medicinal preferences that stimulate illicit trade across different regions, oceans and fishing societies. It will investigate how African and Pacific fishers have enacted similar mobilities in the past and how these mobilities today interact with those of Chinese and Vietnamese fishers.

TransOcean addresses two questions in particular:
1. How do Chinese and Vietnamese fishers expand their harvesting and trading practices from the South China Sea to other oceans, moving in and out of legal/illegal, licit/illicit, and state/non-state modalities in different temporal and geographical scales?
2. How do these Chinese and Vietnamese transoceanic mobilities interact with those of Oceanian and African fishers and with what effects?

TransOcean has the following objectives:

1. To develop an ethnographically-based, theoretical analysis of the modalities of transoceanic expansion from the SCS outward and their connections with the local mobilities of fishers in Oceania and Africa.
2. To develop a theoretical framework based on the multiple mobilities of fishers as actors in processes of transoceanic expansion.
3. To elaborate a thalassographic—i.e. historical and vernacular sea-related geography—methodology for researching fishers’ marine and maritime practices in transoceanic spaces.
4. To advance a transoceanic knowledge base of and approach to intractable marine problems that will be of strong interest to practitioners and policy makers within the EU Integrated Marine Policy and beyond.

By privileging the expansions outward from the SCS to other Oceans and by singling out more than one group for analysis, TransOcean breaks new empirical, theoretical and methodological ground. It offers an approach to fishers that is multi-scalar and transoceanic, while remaining firmly rooted in fine-grained ethnographic research.
1. Recruitment of project team in progress
2. 2020 (February-April), ‘TransOcean’ 3-month field and archive research, Australian Fisheries Management Authorities, Australia, (field research has been interrupted in mid-March by Covid 19), data on apprehension of illegal Vietnamese fishers in the Australian exclusive economic zone.
3. Electronic archive/documentary research on illegal Vietnamese fishers in Australia in progress
4. 2019 (November), ‘TransOcean’, 1-month field research, Hainan, China, data on subsidized fisheries
5. Collaborations, visiting fellowships and dissemination:
a) (February-April 2020) Sydney University. Invitation for Visiting Academic Programme, School of Languages and Cultures from Prof. Adrian Vickers, Australia.
b) (November 2019), Center for Global Asia, New York University Shanghai, invitation from Prof. Tansen Sen, China.
c) 2019 Policy Briefing framework for the European External Action Service (EEAS) Southern Asia diplomats in Brussels ‘Exploitative expansion of Vietnamese fisheries as an answer to the South China Sea conflict and the market,’ December 11, Brussels, Belgium.
Webseminars, conferences, debates, participation:
2020 Silk Road@UNSW Seminar Series, organized by School of Humanities and Languages, New South Wales University, Sydney, Australia. Webminar ‘Transoceanic fishers: Multiple mobilities in and out of the South China Sea’, July 1.
2020 Crimes and order at sea. An Ideaslab. Blue Lab organized by Christian Burger and Timothy Edmunds, the University of Copenhagen. Presentation: Transoceanic Fishers. Webminar, 28 May,

2020 China and the Maritime Silk Road: Shipwrecks, ports, and products, 21-23 August , Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore.

Publications and outputs:
2020 Edyta Roszko ‘Enclosing Blue Commons, Generating Blue Growth? Comment on Fiona McCormack’s “Precarity, Indigeneity and the Market in Māori fisheries”’ Public Anthropologist, vol. 2, no.1.
2020 Edyta Roszko 'Nhân học trền biẻn [Maritime Anthropology. In Nhân học ngành khoa học về con người [Anthropology: The Science of Human Beings], edited by Nguyen Van Suu. Nhà Xuất bản ̣Đại Học Quốc Gia Hà Nội [Vietnam National University Press], p. 220-239.
2021 (March) Edyta Roszko 'Fishers, Monks and Cadres: Navigating State, Religion and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam', University of Hawai'i Press, p. 288.
2021 (March) Edyta Roszko 'Maritime Anthropology'. In The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Anthropology, edited by Lene Pedersen and Lisa Cliggett, 279-315. Los Angeles, London and New Delhi: SAGE.
The TransOcean project’s 1st period has been dedicated to ethnographic and documentary data collection which has already yielded a range of results. One journal article has been published, another is under review and 1 monograph is forthcoming in 2020. Recently, TranOcean received the invitation from WWF-US to contribute a Policy Brief on the South China Sea fisheries to Targeting Natural Resources Corruption (TNRC). The 1st draft of Policy Brief is currently under review. The kickoff-workshop with recruited postdoctoral researchers and the Advisory Board Members is planned for May 2021. The TransOcean has additionally attracted a seed funding from CMI-UiB collaboration fund extending the TransOcean research line by looking at ‘blue commons’, including high-seas, seabeds, coasts, fishing grounds, marine life and underwater cultural heritage. The planned workshop in August 2021 and edited volume will provide a strong basis for an engaged anthropology, thereby bringing attention to global challenges and potential solutions and strategically contributing to oceanic social sciences and ocean literacy.