China becoming an environmentalist at home, while plundering abroad

China is making big claims about the improved state of its domestic fisheries. But it seems much less concerned about sustainable fishing amongst its long-distance fleet, which has a heavy global footprint. 

Having instituted a nationwide crackdown on overfishing over the past few years, including fishing moratoriums and aggressive policing, China is claiming success in its efforts to repopulate its severely depleted domestic fisheries. There has been a huge increase in “fish density,” according to Zhang Xian Liang, the head of the Fishery Administration Office at China’s Department of Agriculture. Zhang’s office has shared “fish density” data with a number of domestic policy groups over the past two months, revealing that in 2017, fish density in the Yellow Sea soared by 350 percent, the Bohai Bay area saw a 190 percent increase, and the South China Sea – part of which is claimed by other states – experienced a fish density increase of 70 percent.

In enforcing its annual moratorium, Chinese authorities impounded 7,000 vessels and seized 400,000 nets. A 2017  campaign dubbed the Liang Jian – or “Flashing Sword” campaign, in English – led to 10,343 arrests and 1,369 defendants being brought to court for various fisheries-related violations. A separate campaign aligned with a government scheme to reduce the size of the trawling fleet in domestic waters resulted in 16,000 inspections of 1,709 boat yards and 20,000 vessels to ensure they were being dismantled or converted.

China has brought nearly none of this effort or enthusiasm to cleaning up its fishing presence overseas. Rather, its priority is to seek a dominant position in global fishing waters before considering anything like the conservation and restoration the country’s various domestic campaigns are apparently achieving at home.  

China appears to be sensitive to that critique. Zhang’s office claims there are just 1,329 Chinese vessels operating abroad, representing six percent of the global total. According to his office, those vessels collectively pulled in a 1.32 million-ton catch in 2017, representing a 12 percent share of the global total. 

Zhang’s Fishery Administration Office did not clarify whether Chinese-owned vessels flying a flag of another country are counted in this figure, and did not provide vessel sizes against which the Chinese fleet can be measured to put the six percent estimate into context.

Environmental group Greenpeace has different estimates for China’s fishing impact. The nonprofit estimates there are around 2,500 Chinese-owned fishing vessels operating in international waters, giving it the world’s largest fleet by far. And according to data compiled by Global Fishing Watch, a nonprofit that monitors global fishing effort, Chinese vessels spent 17 million hours of fishing in international waters in 2016. Second-placed Taiwan clocked an estimated 2.2 million hours, and Global Fishing watch said China’s total easily exceeds the rest of the top 10 countries in the ranking’s combined hourage.

The Global Fishing Watch research, based on five years of monitoring of ship satellites, was published in a recent edition of the journal Science, but the data hasn’t been publicized in the Chinese media. The strength and competiveness of China’s international fishing fleet is central to the country’s self-identified role for itself as a so-called “Great Ocean Power” – and to the success of its New Silk Road, or “One Belt, One Road” plan to bolster its international trade.

Some data that China is sharing: There was a 66 percent increase between 2010 and 2016 in the number of Chinese vessels fishing internationally, while tonnage from those vessels grew 78 percent in the same time-frame, according to China’s Agricultural Ministry. 

At a World Trade Organization summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017, China said it would limit its international fishing fleet to its 2016 level, around 3,000 vessels. But the policy will not affect the Chinese fleet’s move toward greater efficiency and “international competitiveness,” according to documents published by Zhang’s office at the Agriculture Ministry. That “international competitiveness” is aided by China’s fuel subsidies, which frequently make the difference between a profitable and unprofitable fishing trip for many of China’s large fishing firms – many of which would not survive without the subsidies checks sent to them each year by the finance ministry in Beijing. 

In its defense, China presents itself as a recent arrival to the international fishing industry. But recent arrival or not, China is having an outsized impact on the world’s fisheries, especially in areas where there’s no significant local fleet to compete and where artisanal fishermen are being squeezed out of their livelihoods. And China is poised to take an even larger share of the global catch moving forward. 

With the fisheries reforms China has made at home, it’s clear that the country’s leadership sees the negative impact overfishing can have, and that it has developed and implemented effective solutions to combat that problem. But beyond the country’s exclusive economic zone, it has become evident that China’s fisheries officials don’t yet see the same urgency to make any changes to its exploitative and unsustainable practices.

Photo courtesy of The Bangkok Post


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