China and the World

Into deep water

China’s fishing fleet targets long-distance catch


Likely caught far from China

By 2020 China’s homegrown satellite navigation system Beidou should cover the globe.

That’s good news for the country’s fishermen, who are venturing further from home after depleting many of their own reserves.

China is the world’s largest fishing nation by fleet – a fact confirmed by research published in the journal Science earlier this year.

That means the position that it takes at upcoming UN talks to protect ocean biodiversity will have a major impact on global fish stocks. The messages from the Chinese government, so far, are mixed.

Before Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the Chinese barely ranked as a fishing nation. Their fleet was small and predominantly wooden, and fishermen stuck to their own coastal waters. But in the last 40 years China’s domestic haul has soared from 3 million tonnes a year to 13 million tonnes. And as local stocks have dropped, fishing companies began investing in boats that could work farther afield.

Today there are 2,900 “distant water” Chinese vessels working on the high seas – i.e. in international waters – or in the exclusive economic zones of other nations with which China has signed agreements.

According to Science’s February article, Chinese vessels now rack up 17 million fishing hours a year – or more than the next 10 largest fishing nations combined.

Other fishing statistics outstrip those of other countries too: China has 10 times as many “distant water” ships as the US and the European Union, and three times more coastal vessels.

David Kroodsma, research programme director at Global Fishing Watch, the non-profit organisation that put together the study, analysed five years of data from ship identification systems to build a picture of global fishing practices.

The waters of China and Europe are where vessels are most active, but there is also major activity along the west coast of Africa and in waters around parts of South America – two areas in which Chinese ships now frequently work. Indeed, boats from China have clashed with coast guards in countries as far away as Argentina, Ecuador, Guinea and Indonesia.

The report concluded that much of this long-distance fishing is economically viable only because China’s central and provincial governments have doled out billions of yuan in subsidies for fuel and to shipbuilders to expand the fleet.

In fact, the Chinese aren’t the worst offenders in subsidising their fishermen (Japan and Spain spent more, according to another study out this month) but Beijing also favours long-distance shipping because it wants to cut the domestic fishing haul to below 10 million tonnes a year. In recent years it has extended its summer-fishing moratorium in areas like the South China Sea to allow stocks to replenish. With that in mind Chinese boats need to pull ever more fish from international waters so that they can supply the country’s sprawling fish processing industry.

Much of the fish China catches around the world is then exported: “Ocean fishing is a strategic industry. It is of great significance to ensure the supply of high quality aquatic products in China, secure national food security and to safeguard the national marine rights and interests,” the government said in a white paper published last December.

Environmental concerns aside, China’s fleet also worries military experts because fishermen are often part of the so-called maritime militia – an organisation that tasks civilian seamen with helping the navy and coastguard enforce China’s territorial claims. The militia has been widely deployed in the South China Sea – a disputed area that Beijing claims in its entirety. But as its vessels venture even further from home there has been talk of fishermen receiving instructions to assert China’s rights in more distant waters. A 2016 article in the Jiefang Daily called for fishing communities to “integrate” with the military. “Forming an organised militia will strengthen the protection of our rights,” it said.

A better understanding of the fleet’s location is another advantage and the China Daily reported last month that around 40,000 of China’s fishing vessels now use the homegrown navigation system Beidou when they set sail.

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