Early last week an amateur AIS follower picked up on an unusual collection of Chinese fishing vessels sailing through South Africa’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). To have foreign vessels within 20 nautical miles of our coastal, transiting in lucrative fishing grounds where they had no authority to be fishing in the first place, has sparked a serious debate about who should intervene, and how. Here are three major things you need to know about the past week’s maritime affairs.

1 – South Africa’s authorities knew about them
There was much criticism for the perceived inaction of South Africa’s maritime security bodies. Where the South African Navy (SAN) and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) were dominated media discussions. But both the Navy and DAFF, as well as a few other concerned bodies knew much about the irregular fleets and where they were headed.

“Fleets” is the operative word here, since there were actually two groups of Chinese vessels. Both were monitored and over the weekend one such vessel was actually intercepted and brought into port for inspection. It is important to note that at no point were the authorities unaware of these ships’ movements nor were they refusing to act.

One question levelled by an amateur AIS-watcher was just how he could monitor these vessels, but the authorities could not. In reality, the level of maritime domain awareness in South Africa is actually fairly decent. Between the Navy’s own coastal radar networks, the DAFF’s resources, and even third parties such as the CSIR’s Meraka division, there was most definitely a picture.

2 – The Chinese were probably not poaching
Although clearly fishing-type vessels, the first fleet were headed West via Angola, to a client in Congo. They possessed no major fishing equipment and tended not to loiter too long in South African waters. The second fleet were heading East, and resulted in one vessel captured by the DAFF and police for inspection. Again no fishing nets or long lines were seized.It is possible both fleets dropped ‘opportunistic’ long lines in rich fishing grounds, but these areas also happen to be the quickest route through South Africa, both East and West. As such, it is far more likely that they were transiting South African waters and either disregarded the territorial jurisdicion or were simply unaware.

This is not to say that poaching does not occur. South Africa’s EEZ is often penetrated by ‘drifting’ fishing vessels; boats that float into our territorial waters drop lines or nets, and then escape back into international waters. This is a problem not unique to South Africa, and remains a general issue.

3 – Operation Phakisa will fix a lot of the confusion
There are jurisdictional, capacity and operational issues that compromise the country’s ability to protect its blue economy, so a multi-pronged project called Operation Phakisa has been launched to both build up the necessary capability and create proper co-ordination between government agencies as a response to these concerns.

Put simply, South Africa has a blue water navy — albeit undersized for the size of its ocean territory — and a decent fisheries inspection fleet, a sophisticated geospatial awareness of its maritime domain, and a general jurisdictional framework. This is why the Navy was not the first to intervene, as the DAFF has primary jurisdiction in fisheries protection inside the EEZ with the Navy only intervening on request. Phakisa is formalising and improving each organisation’s responsibility for maritime security and the co-operation between agencies, while paving the way for an improved maritime protection capability. The SANDF’s Project Biro, to acquire new patrol vessels, and Project Metsi to acquire new maritime patrol aircraft, along with several others, are all geared towards improving this awareness.

In sum, the hovering question of perceived inaction by state authorities is misplaced. Although interdiction of said vessels took several days to take place, there was never really a cloud of confusion or sheer ignorance about the identity and intent of the two fleets.