Curbing China’s Massive – and Destructive – Distant Water Fishing FleetNovember 11, 2013 By Katie Lebling
Last month, two Chinese fishing boats were caught operating illegally in South Korean waters. The incident made local headlines and minor diplomatic waves, but it’s just a drop in the bucket in what has become a troubling trend for China’s foreign water fishing fleets. Over the last decade, there have been more than 4,600 cases of Chinese fishing boats being caught illegally in South Korea’s waters alone, according to the government, and these marine transgressions have not been limited to neighbors.
China created its distant water fishing fleet in 1985, largely as a response to growing domestic demand for fish and lack of domestic supply due to overexploited waters. Its growth since then has mirrored China’s overall economic surge. With government support, the fleet now has more than 2,000 vessels; in comparison, the U.S. fleet has around 200.
From Korea to West Africa
China’s massive distant water fishing fleet is problematic for a few reasons, the most prominent being that a significant portion of its catch it illegal, unreported, or unregulated, making measuring catches and determining sustainable catch rates impossible. Of the estimated 4.6 million tons of fish China catches annually, the vast majority comes from outside of its domestic waters, and most of that is unreported.
Along with many other distant water fishing nations, China concentrates a good portion of its efforts off the west coast of Africa due to nutrient upwelling that brings dense schools of phytoplankton and all the food chains that rely on them. Many European and other countries have signed access agreements under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishing certain extraction amounts and parameters with African countries. China does not publically disclose its access agreements, so it is unclear how much of their activity is illegal, but it is estimated that 80 percent of the 3.1 million tons caught off African coasts is illegal, unreported, or unregulated.
China’s focus on West Africa’s coastal waters is doubly concerning in light of the protein deficits facing many local populations – hunger due in part because fishermen are unable to bring home as much as they used to. Lack of local enforcement power and rampant corruption means coastal navies cannot effectively patrol their own waters, and affected countries are often reluctant to cooperate with one another. Chinese ships have also been known to remove identifying flags or change their names to avoid being caught. Local fishermen cannot compete with technologically advanced Chinese fleets who can extract orders of magnitude more fish than them.
Not Just Domestic Demand
Although China’s growing middle class is a significant driver of increased demand for fish protein, most of the high value species caught by China’s distant water fleets and about half of the overall catch is exported to Europe, the United States, and Japan. Lack of traceability and pressure from importing countries, however, prevents buyers from being able to make informed decisions about their purchases, which might reduce the practice. Lack of information and apathy from those who are connected to the process – from fishermen, to wholesalers, and finally customers – contributes significantly to allowing China’s damaging behavior to continue.
Domestically, despite growing environmental awareness, the majority of the population is still not at the socioeconomic level where they are willing to pay more for sustainably caught fish.
Aside from supply and demand forces, there are geopolitical drivers too. China has been using its distant water fishing fleet as a way to combat unemployment in its declining domestic fisheries, advance its overall development plans, and assert its claim as a rising power and owner of a rightful portion of the global fish supply. China is emulating more established distant water fishing fleets in the expansion of its own power claims, though its scale is much larger and more rapid.
Increase Reporting Requirements, Enforcement
Natural resource management issues at sea are understandably more opaque than those on land because they are often physically – and psychologically – more distant and concealed than terrestrial concerns. However, as China continues to push the boundaries of distant water fishing and environmental awareness in the country and abroad rises, we can hope for more responsible behavior, as exemplified by the recent ban on shark fin soup at official banquets.
In the meantime, there are several methods importing countries can use to pressure China to change its behavior faster. Increasing the requirements on fish extraction data and overall transparency is an effective way to signal growing concern. Supporting African nations in their enforcement of existing access agreements, as well as seeking ways to improve cooperation among affected countries would also be a step forward.
Poor oversight by the Chinese government and lack of significant outside pressure to change are the main drivers of current practices, which are far from sustainable and have significant side effects for some of the world’s poorest countries. But engaging, not browbeating, China is key. Ultimately, participating in international agreements, cooperating with other distant water fishing countries, and agreeing on guidelines for non-compliance are in China’s own long-term self-interest, to avoid complete collapse of their fishing industry and ensure national food security.
Katie Lebling is a second year student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies concentrating in China studies and energy, resources, and the environment. She interned with the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in the spring of 2013.
Sources: European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries, Global Times, Marine Policy, The New York Times, Yonhap News Agency.
Photo Credit: Fishing village on Shengsi Island, used with permission courtesy of filckr user woOoly.