China increasingly dominating fishing rule-making

Published on
December 13, 2018

China will ultimately be “the formulator” of the global rules on international fishing, Liu Zhong Xin, the deputy head of the Fisheries Management Bureau at the Ministry of Agriculture said recently in an interview with the Beijing-based Global Times.

In the interview, which was part of an extensive article on the prospects for China’s distant water-fishing industry, Liu said he sees China’s dominance of global distant-water fisheries coming about as traditional fishing powers like Spain and Japan are withdrawing from the industry.

But Liu did not mention that Spain, Japan, and other developed countries have moved to limit subsidies to their distant water-fishing fleet, something China has declined to do. It blocked a push to end its subsidies at a World Trade Organization summit last year in Argentina.

An end to such subsidies is regarded as vital to ensuring the sustainability of the world’s stocks of fish, and is seen as necessary to creating a level playing field for fishing nations. But China seems to have other ideas about how the development of global fisheries should proceed. Its approach to trade and investment is already reformulating rules and amending the international fisheries rulebook, in practice.

China’s emergence as a rule-setter is based on China’s economic power, and as it relates to seafood, the scale of its fleet, the ongoing modernization of that fleet, and the insatiable demand for seafood from China’s domestic market.

The hunger for Chinese investment among developing countries is also playing a major role. China has emerged as the dominant trading partner – and frequently, leading investor – in countries around the globe. In just the past year, Chinese fisheries officials, including Liu and Yu Kangzhen, the head of his department, have signed cooperation agreements with the likes of Fiji, Ghana, Madagascar, Liberia, and Mozambique, promising new ports and fish processing facilities and shipyards in return for access to local waters for Chinese trawlers. Increasingly, they’ve also offered training in aquaculture to replace diminished sea stocks in these countries.

Such arrangements are often part of more complex state-to-state relationships involving loans, infrastructure, and resources. But the deals indisputably give it leverage over international governance bodies, as China can coerce member-countries into supporting its positions.

In his recent address at the China Fisheries Expo in Qingdao, China, Yu said his country’s growing dominance of global fisheries is a major positive. China’s openness to trade has been a boon for seafood-exporting nations: Over the past five years, said Yu, China’s seafood exports rose by two percent but its seafood imports rose 7.2 percent.

“We welcome you to China to seek partners and opportunities,” Yu said.

Additionally, China has also helped guarantee global food security through expansion of its aquaculture sector – it is now responsible for two-thirds of global aquaculture output, Yu said.

“We are a responsible distant-water fishing country,” Yu said in his address, which was given to an audience of global diplomats, including representatives of Australia, Canada, Iceland, Ireland, Russia, and Sierra Leone. “Our fishing companies work within international frameworks.”

Buttressing his statements, Yu recently pledged more international cooperation to “severely deal with illegal behavior” by Chinese fishing firms. He said such work is already underway, citing how in three years, China has reduced its national count of distant-water fishery firms by eight and the number of vessels in China’s distant-water fishing fleet by 21. An additional 15 Chinese companies and individuals have been put on a black list, depriving them of access to subsidies, Yu said.

But some of Yu’s claims were misleading. Yu said China’s share of global fisheries is only one kilogram per capita, which is far less than other major distant-water fishing countries. However, that’s hardly a workable comparison given China’s population of 1.4 billion people naturally makes its per-capita figure far lower.

Similarly, it’s unclear whether or not China counts – or supervises – the many Chinese vessels sailing under other flags, or the fishing firms registered as local companies. A recent example is Chinese-owned vessels documented to be flouting local laws in Ghana, as recently exposed in a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Nor has Yu addressed what appears to be a disconnect between official Chinese pronouncements for conservation, and the country’s grand plans in the industry; which include adding more processing and value-added business off its growing haul from its distant-water fishing efforts.

The big question facing the global fishing sector is what will China’s approach be if and when it seeks to reformulate the rules governing global fisheries management systems. Will China choose to remake or replace institutions, as it has done in replacing the Asian Development Bank (and World Bank) with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is headquartered in Beijing and which now dispenses funds globally? Or will it pursue a less disruptive route?

Those seeking clarity in the short-term may end up frustrated. China’s fishing-related deals – as befitting its system of government – are often very opaque or secretive, and the country’s leaders are unlikely to go public with their strategy as it relates to fisheries or global trade.

Photo courtesy of Ministry of Agriculture of the People's Republic of China

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