Why China’s economic slow-down will mean more overseas fishing conflict

TV viewers worldwide will have seen the recent BBC reports on Chinese fishermen pillaging and wrecking precious coral reefs in the South China Sea. Many of the individuals were peasant workers with little or no knowledge of maritime eco systems but seemed to have free rein to fish the seas for the coral, which is prized in China for jewellery and ornaments.

And news viewers will also have seen the footage over the past week of Chinese civilian aircraft landing in the middle of the South China Sea on islands built from dredging the sea in waters claimed by several nations.

Judging from past experience when China’s economy hits trouble –and it’s current in slow-down mode - that means nationalism is encouraged as a distraction, through claims on disputed territory. Hence we can expect more free rein for Chinese vessels to enter and fish waters this year, sparking fury in effected states, like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Similarly, an increasingly likely further devaluation of the RMB makes Chinese exports more competitive, leading to a possible resurgence of the Chinese seafood processing sector. All of this points to a turbulent 2016 for waters targeted by Chinese fishing vessels.

Backed by local governments, China’s overseas fishing fleets will this year see rising demand from processing plants (currently running at an average 70 percent capacity) which will be motivated by a weaker Chinese currency to ramp up output for export. The local government of Hainan province, the launching pad for most of the illegal fishing in the South China Sea, set a goal of 13.5 percent annual increase in fishing output during the 12th Five Year Plan, China’s economic blueprint which ran to the end of 2015.

This unfortunately means more conflict and tension with other nations. The awful thing about the reef-destroying crews in the South China Sea is that their presence in these waters is facilitated and promoted by China. It has encouraged fishermen to enter disputed waters and effectively claim them for China - a type of militia which can then be buttressed by Chinese naval vessels.

Increasing encroachment by Chinese fleets is also a by-product of the depletion of Chinese inland waters by over-fishing – which in turn came about in large part due to unfortunate policy of subsidising the enlargement of the domestic fishing fleet.

China has made much of its ‘zero growth’ policy and fishing lock-out periods as a means of reversing the over-fishing that has emptied its territorial waters. But this only applies to territorial waters. Similarly, a campaign against reef destruction and illegal trawlers (which typically turn off their satellite navigation equipment) in key coastal fishing provinces like Zhejiang doesn’t seem to apply to the activities of Chinese vessels beyond national waters.

If you look at the way the national subsidy system works you’ll see that fuel subsidies are paid according to engine power, not fuel consumed. This has encouraged a boom in fishing vessel building over the past decade with local fishermen switching to larger vessels to avail of higher subsidies. While some of the fishermen did park up their vessels (in return for a one-off payment from government) others rent their quota to owners of larger vessels.

Having applied larger, newer and much more sophisticated vessels to hoovering up stocks from China’s own waters, fishermen and fishing companies have, with government encouragement and fuel subsidies, gone to faraway seas and to contested regional seas like the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

China’s emphasis on expanding its long-distance fleet has caused all kinds of problems for fishing communities in Asia, the Pacific and Africa. With under-used factories and territorial claims both at stake this trend will unfortunately only accelerate this year. China’s hunger for small fish to feed its expanding fish meal producers is another motivating factor sending Chinese vessels into

China accounts for 20 percent of the world’s wild-caught fisheries catch –and that’s only official figures. And while China isn’t the only place to produce insane fisheries policies, it now needs to spend some time and money on sustainability in its waters. Rather than spending vast sums on fuel subsidies it may be better for China to fund and enforce measures to improve its own waters – like cutting pollution and reef destruction. This would help prevent over-fishing both at home and overseas.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Hull via Wikimedia Commons.


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