Fishing has become the latest indicator of high levels of corruption in Iran, with local fishermen losing their livelihoods due to dubious licenses being granted to Chinese fishing boats engaged in deep-sea trawling.
Fishermen in southern Iran have repeatedly protested against the government’s destructive policies, which have led to a rise in unemployment and an increase in poverty. The scandal in Iran's fishing waters became public about two years ago, but the relevant government authorities have failed to act on the matter or respond to the fishermen’s grievances.
The Iranian Fisheries Organization has allowed more than 5,000 Chinese industrial trawlers to fish in Iran’s most plentiful waters. According to locals, the industrial fishing practices of Chinese boats leave little for native fishermen, and even fish eggs and shellfish get caught up in the Chinese trawlers.
It’s not just the locals who have identified corruption. The Revolutionary Guards Corps claims that Chinese trawlers have been illegally draining Iranian waters in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf of vital supplies of fish for their own commercial gain. Colonel Teymour Payedareh, commander of the Guards’ Imamat Naval Base at Jask reported that 14 boats had been confiscated in an attempt to support local fishermen [Persian link].
According to Commodore Alireza Tangsiri [Persian link], commander of the Guards’ Navy, when Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards, saw that the boats of local fisherman had been left idle and turned upside-down outside of the water, he wept. Tangsiri said he was confident that there is a “mafia” behind the Chinese trawler business.
Islamic Republic officials claim that although the boats are Chinese, they are leased by Iranian fishing companies that do not have the deep-sea fishing boats they need. They use the trawlers to catch lanternfish — which have industrial uses, such as in cattle feed — at a depth of 200 meters. Iranian officials say that there are some Chinese nationals working on the trawlers leased from China, but they are certainly not all Chinese fishermen.
Locals Dispute Claims
Local people and fisherman say that various Iranian officials are involved in the scheme, and that Chinese trawlers enter Iranian waters under the pretext of catching lanternfish, but then harvest other fish on an industrial scale.
A number of representatives to the Iranian parliament have implicitly talked about a vast level of corruption linked to the Chinese trawlers. “I have talked so much about Chinese fishermen that I am exhausted but nobody listens,” said Mostafa Zolghadr, member of parliament from Minab in Hormozgan province [Persian link]. “Local people say that Chinese ships are there on the sea but the Fisheries Organization says that it is not so. We do not know what to do.” And Ahmad Moradi, a representative from the port city of Bandar Abbas, says: “I have no doubt that behind the story of the Chinese ships stands a powerful cabal that is not easy to deal with” [Persian link].
Iranian Parliament’s Research Center reports that the boats belong to the Chinese fishermen, and that they fish in Iranian waters because they can buy subsidized cheap fuel from Iran. Then they freeze their catch and take it elsewhere to sell. According to the Research Center, although the Chinese save Iran 25 billion tomans (near $6 million) in importing powdered fish by catching lanternfish, Iran is actually giving the Chinese 28 billion tomans [close to $6.7 million] by selling them subsidized fuel.
Before the recent escalation in criticism of the Chinese fishing boats in Iranian waters, China had officially announced that its fishermen were making more than seven billion dollars from their operations in the area [Persian link]. But after the Rouhani administration and the Revolutionary Guards entered into a dispute over the issue, China denied that it had any fishing fleet in Iranian waters, including in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf [Persian link].
Iran Fisheries Organization, part of the Ministry of Agriculture Jihad, is responsible for granting permits to fish in Iranian waters. In summer 2018, the head of the agency said it did not have a contract with China or any other country for the fishing of lanternfish. He claimed that the organization had only issued permits to Iranian companies.
But the Ports and Maritime Organization, part of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development — which supervises commercial activities in Iran’s waters — contradicted these assertions. In summer 2018, its the vice president said: “the Chinese have a long-term contract with the Fisheries Organization to fish in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.”
Contradictions and Confusion
The situation is so confused that it is not clear who should be believed, or who has been breaking the law. Instead of trying to clarify the matter, the government allows its officials to contradict one another on the facts and does little to encourage clear communication.
On February 11, the Revolutionary Guards announced that it had impounded 14 trawlers in the areas concerned. [Persian link]. Of the detained trawlers, five were reported to be Chinese and nine Iranian. The Guards’ commander who announced the news said the case would be heard before a court and prosecutions would follow.
In fact, it is legal for foreign vessels to fish within the confines a so-called “special commercial marine zone,” which begins 50km from the coast of Iran and continues for a further 270km. Commercial fishing vessels can fish to a depth of 200 meters, provided Iran has granted them permits to do so. Depending on their contracts, they can sell their catch to Iran or, by paying a sum specified in the contract, export it elsewhere.
In a transparent commercial arrangement, and in a situation where the bureaucracy involved is not corrupt, if a vessel violates its contract — for example, if it catches a kind of fish not listed in the contract, or catches fish in an area not allowed — the Ports and Maritime Organization can issue a warning to the offending vessel. If the vessel continues to violate the law and its contract, the organization can lodge a complaint with the court and ask for the vessel to be impounded. If the court agrees, the vessel will be impounded by the military.
In the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy is responsible for protecting maritime areas. After a vessel is detained, it is taken to a port, and the vessel’s crew are also usually taken into custody. If the court rules that the vessel is at fault, it might impose a fine and, in more serious cases, it might rule that the government can confiscate it. But what Islamic Republic and Revolutionary Guards officials have stated suggests that this legal process is not being followed.
Instead, the Revolutionary Guards Corps has detained foreign vessels that do have contracts with the government of Iran without the government issuing complaints that these vessels have engaged in illegal activities. But some members of the parliament and commanders of the Revolutionary Guards say these vessels have engaged in illegal activities and the government cannot — or does not want — to present legal evidence to prove that they have been doing what they were allowed to according to their contracts. Not only does this reveal the financial corruption and unlawful conduct at play — but it also exposes the fact that the inefficiency of multiple government agencies has contributed to the current crisis. As with so many areas in Iranian society, inept bureaucracy and corruption is so rife in Iranian fishing that it affects the wealth of the country, and has a disastrous impact on the lives of the people, who must rely on these agencies and systems to earn a living and support their families.
Corruption is Here — Get Used to It, July 26, 2018
Is Iran Becoming More Corrupt?, March 12, 2018
Currency Plummets as Corruption and Incompetence Continues, April 18, 2018
Iran’s Latest Corruption Scandal: Who’s to Blame?, October 25, 2016
Journalist Arrested After Reporting on Corruption, September 19, 2016
Iran Blocks News Sites Following Corruption Reports, September 5, 2016
What the People Say: Banks are the Most Corrupt Institutions in Iran, January 28, 2016
Corruption Scandals Hit North Khorasan, May 20, 2015
Judicial Chief Threatens to Censor Corruption Reporting, October 28, 2014
Battling Corruption: Interview with Transparency International, October 8, 2014