China and the World

The trouble with trawling

Chinese fishing vessels are sailing further out to sea, antagonising others

A woman packages freshly caught fish at a port in the city of Dongfang on the western side of China's island province of Hainan

Fishy problem

Only a week after a calamitous explosion at a chemicals facility in Tianjin occurred last August (see WiC292), photos began circulating of dead fish in the nearby Hai River. Thousands of local stickleback had gone belly-up and the fear was that the toxins created by the explosion had seeped into the water supply.

Deng Xiaowen, head of the city’s environmental monitoring centre, denied it, saying that it was “not uncommon for fish to die en masse in local rivers during summer, due to poor water quality”, the Guardian, a British newspaper, reported at the time.

The explanation was awkward, but not necessarily wrong. Much of the pollution threatening China’s fishing industry is a day-to-day feature – it doesn’t stem from one-off disasters. The contamination extends from many of the country’s rivers to its coastlines as well. In the summer of 2014, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) found that 81% of its monitored coastal water – some 41,000 square kilometres – was polluted. “The main pollutants were inorganic nitrogen, reactive phosphate and oil,” Xinhua reports, i.e. industrial waste and agricultural runoff.

The reduction in viable fishing grounds is creating fiercer competition, although overfishing is also taking a toll. One boat owner told China Daily: “If previously we could trawl 100 times, now we need to trawl 120 times to make ends meet.” Trawling isn’t a sustainable activity: the nets are indiscriminate, capturing immature fish – and thus diminishing the number of the next generation – and they deplete the smaller prey that serves as food for the bigger catches.

All told, increased competition closer to shore has depleted the resources of many fisheries. In order to turn a profit, Chinese fishermen are heading further out to sea.

Last year the not-for-profit group Stop Illegal Fishing reported that the Chinese maintain the largest long-distance fleet, totalling over 2,000 vessels. And while fishing far from home is not necessarily illegal, it can often turn out that way. Last month, for example, a Chinese trawler was caught operating in Argentinian waters. In the confrontation that followed, it was sunk by the local coast guard. Tellingly, 28 of its crew were rescued by another Chinese vessel (the remaining four were apprehended by the Argentinians).

Some countries have been more welcoming to Chinese boats, signing deals that allow access to resources in their exclusive economic zones. Other times, a blind eye may be offered. In 2012 it was alleged that Argentinian officials had been facilitating illegal fishing by Chinese crews by tipping them off when the coast guard was about to be dispatched.

In the South China Sea – where China’s territorial claims overlap with those of its neighbours – the potential for confrontation is greater. This month Indonesian officials destroyed 23 foreign fishing vessels, citing incursion into its sovereign waters. None of them were Chinese, although the move was seen as a message to Beijing too, after it seized back control of a Chinese vessel being towed away by the Indonesian authorities last month.

China’s protection for its fishing industry takes economic form as well. Last year, an article in the journal Marine Policy suggested that the government spent Rmb25 billion ($3.24 billion) on fuel subsidies for the fishing industry during the period of the 12th Five-Year Plan, which concluded last year.

According to the chairman of the Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association, without those subsidies, most Chinese trawlers “simply could not exist in the Pacific fisheries at all.”

Of course, longtime readers of WiC will recall that the catalyst for the escalating tensions between China and Japan – which arose over disputed islands that both claim – was the seizure by Tokyo of a Chinese fishing boat and its captain. He was eventually released but the issue reinforced the political dimension of China’s fishing fleet.

Don’t be surprised if a future foreign policy crisis is sparked by fishermen.

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