China data gives neighbors, pelagic rivals cause for concern

Published on
January 28, 2014

New fisheries data for Fujian, one of China’s top seafood producing provinces, looks very positive. The southeasterly province in the January-November period lifted its seafood exports by 8.3 percent year-on-year to 658,000 metric tons (MT) — that’s USD 4.6 billion (EUR 3.4 billion), an 11.7 percent increase compared to the previous year.

But some of the other data published by the Ocean & Fisheries Bureau in its wrap-up of the year gives cause for concern. China’s insatiable hunger for pelagic resources is visible in Fujian’s official data. The province added a whopping 144 new vessels to what it terms its “long distance ocean fishing fleet” in 2013 — bringing the total number of vessels to 420. Another 100 are “under construction.”

But there’s no data provided on where or what quantities are being fished where.

Data and disclosure have never been strong points of China’s pelagic fishing industry. China’s quest for fishing resources perturbs regional neighbors (and far-away competitors), who’ve become increasingly nervous over a more assertive Chinese attitude to regional seas. According to the official data release Fujian gets 26.5 percent of its gross domestic product from the sea. And it plans to build on this figure as China in line with a central government policy of building consumption over manufacturing and infrastructure. Long a hub for light manufacturing and oil refining, Fujian wants to be China’s maritime power.

But bold plans set out in the latest Ocean & Fisheries Bureau statement appear unnecessarily provocative — and unrealistic. Fujian is going to attempt to settle “uninhabited islands” in the South China Sea. That could mean settling islands claimed by other countries like the Philippines.

Fujian now publishes a figure for the provincial “marine economy” which it claims was worth CNY 590 billion (USD 97.5 billion, EUR 71 billion) in 2013, an increase of 15 percent on previous years. That figure includes earnings from shipping, coastal tourism, shipbuilding and “construction” — building of sea-front apartments, hotels and resorts.

Much of Fujian’s plans and projections remain dependent on good ties with vibrant nearby Southeast Asian states, which have continued to buy an ever-larger amount of its goods, easing the impact of weaker EU and U.S. demand in recent years. The importance of new Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) markets is borne out by the results: the port of Xiamen (Fujian’s largest) is a key dispatch point for shipments to Taiwan and ASEAN markets like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Continued prosperity in this region — where seafood is a staple of the local diet — meanwhile matters also for exporters, with reports of strong demand for imported crabs, salmon, shrimp and oysters. The Fuzhou Daily News, a daily in the provincial capital (Fuzhou), ran a feature over the weekend on a “dogfight” between consumers for imported seafood. “It is now increasingly within the purchasing power of ordinary people,” opined the writer, reporting from a supermarket on Yangqiao Road in the city. The journalist noted salmon and Chilean king crab were the most sought after — with demand for the latter helped by superior meat quality and size compared to domestic crabs — according to the Fuzhou Daily News. The growing continued confidence of the Chinese consumer however depends on peaceful and prosperous trading relationship with its neighbors.

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