Is China really a land of promise?

A small fishing boat in Sanya, China. Credit: David Castor A small fishing boat in Sanya, China. Credit: David Castor

China’s massive growth in the seafood sector hasn’t come without criticism, as Adrian Tatum reports.

It is difficult to know how best to describe China’s fishing industry. The country’s economy has grown at such a fast rate in the past decade, its industries have grown quickly too. China’s seafood industry is now the largest in the world. The fish farming sector alone is worth an astonishing £25 billion, producing 32 million tonnes a year which accounts for over two thirds of the world’s total production. 

But despite the recent growth and success, China’s seafood sector still has its challenges to overcome and its reputation is also under close scrutiny as many of the headlines behind China’s massive growth in the fisheries sector have been negative.

Last year, the University of British Columbia reported that 30% of fisheries in China have collapsed and 20% were considered overexploited. These figures are similar to the ones produced at China’s own Institute of Oceanology which says that overfishing and pollution were having a much bigger impact on the country than a decade ago.  

As a result, as well as the significant development in the fish farming sector, China has expanded its distant water fleet, which is now the largest in the world. Despite many international fishing agreements in place, Chinese fishing vessels were reported in nearly 100 countries around the world. Many are worried the fleet is out of control and there have been several reports of China under-reporting its catch as well its involvement in illegal, under-reported and unregulated fishing. 

According to the Guardian newspaper in the UK, just 9% of the millions of tonnes of fish caught by China's giant fishing fleet in African and other international waters is officially reported to the UN, says researchers using a new way to estimate the size and value of catches. Scientists at UBC estimate that China's ‘distant water’ fleet of 3,400 vessels catches 4.1m tonnes of fish every year, worth $11.5bn, from the coastal waters of 93 countries. But the Chinese government, says the report, tells the UNFAO that its vessels only took an average of 368,000 tonnes a year from 2000-2011.

The team of 20 researchers calculated the number of Chinese vessels fishing in international waters by consulting news reports, online articles and local fishery experts and estimated that nearly 75% of all the fish caught by Chinese vessels came from African waters, with almost 3m tonnes a year from west Africa.

According to the UNFAO, the West African coast has some of the world's most abundant fishing grounds, but almost all are fully or over-exploited by international fishing fleets.

According to Bloomberg, during the first six months of 2014 alone, the South Korean government reported 266 fishing vessels operating illegally in South Korean waters. The South Korea Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries says that over the past decade 4,600 unlicensed Chinese vessels were seized in Korean waters. Bloomberg says Chinese vessels operating in foreign waters caught, on average, 4.6 million tons of fish annually between 2000 and 2011, cumulatively worth £10.5 billion. That includes an estimated 3.1 million tons of fish caught off African coasts, 80% of which was unreported.

Several reports suggest that by 2015, China aims to expand its distant water fleet from 2,000 vessels to 2,300 vessels. 

The FAO reports 368,000 tons of overseas fish catch per year for China’s distant water fisheries , though official Chinese statistics indicated its DWF caught 1.15 million tons in 2011; the discrepancy is likely due to both under-reporting and different reporting standards between the two entities. By either reporting standard, China’s Bureau of Fisheries is severely under-reporting catch rates of Chinese fishers on the high seas and foreign waters. The amount of each species caught by Chinese fishers also remains unclear, particularly in West Africa where the European Union (EU) is another major player. EU fishers have been fishing off of West Africa for many years before China’s involvement. But unlike China, the EU has more transparent agreements with various West African countries. As DWF fishing entities like the EU and Japan make an effort to improve their practices, China may take advantage of the thus decreased fishing effort and compensate with an increase in Chinese fishing, according to Katie Lebling’s report Fishing for Answers: understanding drivers and environmental impacts of China’s Distant Water Fishing Fleets

The report says in the past two decades, China has significantly increased its fish production through the expansion of aquaculture. According to recent statistics, 65% of China’s aquatic output came from aquaculture, and the remaining 35% from marine capture fisheries. However, water scarcity and water pollution from agricultural runoff, industry, and sewage threaten this food production industry. Aquaculture farmers have responded to pollution threats by adding antibiotics and pesticides into the water to keep their fish alive. Such practices, however, can pose a health risk to consumers and further exacerbate the water pollution problem.  

Earlier this year international fishing agency, Forum Fisheries Agency said that China was using vast subsidies to threaten the survivability of the fishing industry in the Western and Central Pacific - including New Zealand and Australia.

The report said there was deep concern about growth in the Chinese fleet and the high level of subsidies Beijing gives its deepwater fishing boats. It is the official Chinese government policy to assist in the growth, expansion and modernisation of its deep water fleets and to use subsidies and incentives to achieve this aim, the report said.

The extent and magnitude of the subsidies was significant and likely to provide the Chinese distant water fleet with significant cost advantage over unsubsidised fleets.

Chinese spending on its fleet is growing with new tax incentives being introduced, the report said.  

The Chinese are increasing catch levels and forcing down the allowable catch rates of other nations, the report warned.

Without governmental intervention in this issue and broad and active affirmative support of (Pacific Island) governments, the prospect for the survival of domestic non Chinese flagged vessels in the Western and Central Pacific would be extremely challenging, it added. Even provincial governments in China pay the access fees Chinese boats have to pay to fish in the South Pacific.

China is spending about £3.5 billion a year subsidising its state-backed fishing enterprises, which offsets the rising costs of fishing tuna but also makes it difficult for fishermen from other countries as well as smaller Chinese fishermen who do not benefit from state subsidies to survive.

China’s domestic fleet is suffering too as a result of overfishing. The cost of fishing is rising year on year while the total domestic catch is decreasing. Because the fisheries in China’s waters are significantly diminished, domestic fishermen are forced to fish further away, meaning an increase in costs per trip because of the rise in fuel prices and other costs. 

However, despite the significant issues in the industry China pushes forward with legitimate fishing deals to strengthen its international export trade. Just this year a memorandum of understanding has been signed between the UK and China, in order to strengthen fishing trade links and help safeguard exports worth £70m each year.

The understanding was signed to better share information on import and export requirements, and to notify each other of any changes. It is believed that this will help predict and resolve any issues around import and export of fish before they arise.

The agreement will particularly benefit the Scottish fishing industry, as Scottish salmon accounts for the majority of the current £70m fish exports to China. 

China has also made plans for the construction of the country's first factory fish farming ship at the Nansha islands. The converted oil tanker could weigh as much as 200,000 tons, and will function as a multi-purpose mobile offshore production base, according to Lei Jilin, a researcher at the Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute. Lei says the initial plan is to deploy the factory ship at Mischief Reef, one of China's major fishing bases in the southernmost area. An increasing number of fishermen have settled in the area to breed aquatic products. Lei said government support can help develop deep-sea fisheries and uphold sovereignty over marine territories. 

According to researcher Lucio Blanco Pitlo, the South China Sea does offer some hope. Although the hope does come with some warnings. Currently, the South China Sea accounts for one-tenth of the world’s global fisheries catch, and plays host to a multi-billion dollar fishing industry. Fish protein accounts for more than 22% of the average Asian diet and growing incomes across Asia will inevitably raise demand.

In his report, Fishing Wars: Competition for South China’s Sea’s Fishery Resources, dwindling fisheries around coastal areas and long range commercial fishing have pushed the fishing frontier farther into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. As a result, fishing has now become a politically-sensitive and emotionally-charged national security issue for claimant countries.

After years of relative state neglect, fishermen across the region are now receiving increased government and public support. A nascent fishing lobby is emerging in several countries advocating better state assistance and support for fishermen encroaching into territorial waters. However, the growing securitisation of the South China Sea’s maritime and territorial disputes puts the fishermen of the region in a precarious position, says Mr Blanco Pitlo.

China has also increased its South China Sea patrols significantly in the last decade – this went up from 477 in 2005 to 1235 in 2009. Though the assertion of state presence worked to the fishermen’s advantage in this case, in the long-run such precedents are detrimental to the security of fishing industries in regional states, and those who depend on them.

The passing of domestic laws that formalise maritime claims in the South China Sea is also a worrying development. Since fishermen are known to migrate in neighbouring areas where maritime law enforcement is weaker, this incentivises aggrieved local fishermen to compel their government to take a tougher stance on the issue. What results is a competitive dynamic between disputants to build up their naval and coast guard assets, exacerbating tensions and contributing to further regional instability.

Overlapping EEZ claims and the squabble for resource access has already spurred a regional naval arms race, with China in the lead in constructing patrol, coastal defence, and warships, to be deployed over the next decade.

But Mr Blanco Pitlo says this dynamic is unsustainable. “Alongside the need to safeguard livelihoods, the migratory nature of living marine resources needs a collaborative joint strategy between littoral states, if marine resources are to be managed sustainably. At present, this trans-boundary issue does not receive the attention it deserves in international maritime law, which grants ‘exclusive’ territorial rights over a maritime area, contributing to a tragedy of the marine commons. Agreements on fishing seasons, maximum catch limits, prohibition on the capture of certain marine species and protection from unilateral arrests are among the ‘neutral’ issues that may facilitate dialogue without spilling over into geopolitics.”


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