China rushing to build global fishing bases before capping its fleet size

A noisy celebration in December marked the setting to sea of two new vessels by Zhuhai Dong Gang Xing Long Distance Fishing Co. Zhuhai, a city of 1.5 million residents bordering Macau and Hong Kong. The two 51-meter-long seine-net vessels will fish off the coast of Mauritania and will soon be joined by six other vessels under construction. 

Zhuhai Dong Gang, which was licensed in 2016 by China’s Agricultural Ministry to operate in Africa, will also build a fishing “base” – port, processing facilities, and logistics hub – in the northwest African nation. And the company is sending 10 new vessels to Vanuatu in 2018 and building a base there as well.

Piggybacking on the government’s goals under the “One Belt, One Road” (now known as the Belt and Road Initiative), overseas fishing bases have become central to the plans of company executives and government officials involved in Chinese seafood industry. Initiated in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a plan to build out infrastructure at home and abroad to increase Chinese trade avenues.

Judging by the number of references to the initiative in Zhuhai Dong Gang and Zhuhai municipal government statements, it’s clear Chinese cities are using the BRI blueprint to get more vessels onto the seas quickly. The reason for the haste has at least partially to do with Chinese fishery officials pledging at December’s World Trade Organization summit in Argentina to freeze the country’s distant-water fishing fleet size at its 2016 level. Chinese fishing firms are scrambling to get in under the quota, which will be capped at 3,000 vessels by 2020, according to the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), finally published on Christmas Day.  

The pledge was made after heavy public pressure was brought to bear on China at the WTO meeting. International opinion of China’s expansionistic fishing efforts abroad has grown more openly negative as China dramatically increased its presence in international fishing waters under its last Five-Year Plan. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of fishing companies licensed by the Agricultural Ministry to operate abroad reached 162, an increase of 46 percent. These firms had a combined 2,571 vessels in the waters in 2016, up 66 percent on 2010. Their annual haul in 2016, at 1.99 million tons, represented a 78 percent increase on their 2010 total. 

In its own defense, China presents itself as a generous source of aid to developing countries seeking investment in their fishery industries. 

“They want us to come. They hope we come to set up processing and logistics and ports,” Chen Ze Luan, the head of an organization promoting the development of overseas fisheries, recently told Chinese media.

China’s ambitions to secure overseas fishery resources are promoted by the state-run media. After Fuzhou Hong Dong’s deal for a base in Mauritania was announced, its hometown newspaper, the Fuzhou Daily, described the African country as a land “blessed with abundance of fish” but lacking the ability to catch or process them all. 

Despite the ample coverage of China's overseas expansion, Chinese newspapers rarely appear to have any room for coverage of the countless cases of their country’s vessels illegally fishing in Africa and elsewhere. 

Perhaps wary of potential negative international attention they may garner, Chinese fishing companies typically don’t publicize the deals they sign with African governments for access to fisheries, as was the case with Fuzhou Hong Dong’s deal with Mauritania. The 50-year deal includes an investment of up to USD 420 million (EUR 342 million) in a fishing port, processing, and logistics facilities. Fuzhou Hong Dong has also said it’s in talks for a similar deal with the government of Tanzania, on Africa’s east coast. 

The unofficial position of China’s central government is that expansion of China’s overseas fishing presence is a good thing. It looks favorably on the building of bases and ports by Chinese companies, given the possibility to facilitate the export of other Chinese goods. The government also requires at least 65 percent of the overseas catch to be returned to Chinese ports for processing in order to guarantee jobs at home.

Equally important to understanding China’s outlook on its foreign fisheries is the rising economic status of its population – and their growing taste for seafood. While historically, China’s overseas catch was largely sold to buyers in Europe, long-term, the new overseas fishing expansion is all about satisfying future domestic demand. 

China wants to guarantee the quality of the seafood on tables in China, according to China’s Vice Minister For Agriculture Yu Kangzhen, who oversees fisheries. Sending vessels and building bases around the world is “key to bolstering China’s food security,” Yu told journalists in December.

The vice minister is now making the rounds of China’s fishing companies' headquarters, making an effort to rationalize the newly announced cap in boat numbers. Having encouraged the build-up of China’s fleet in earlier five-year plans, Yu sees a “discrepancy” in the development of the industry and Chinese government strategy. There are too many “small” and “weak” fishing firms with poorly skilled personnel, Yu said.   

Parsing the vice minister’s words, it sounds like China will be able to keep its fleet to 3,000 vessels, but they’ll be much bigger ships. Equally revelatory is the concurrent build-out of the fishing bases China is building across Africa and Asia, which shows that China has no intention to slow the expansion of its overseas fishing, despite the public face of contrition government officials have put on at the WTO meeting and other recent high-profile international events.


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