China’s Crackdown on Illegal Fishing Rings Hollow
The government is finally taking action at home. But its fishing fleets are still plundering waters around the world.
By Adam Minter
November 2, 2020, 5:00 PM CST
Trawling for trouble. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty
Decades ago, the mighty Yangtze River supplied 60% of China’s freshwater fish. Today, after years of development, pollution and overfishing, it supplies about 0.16%. It’s an untenable situation for a huge and seafood-loving country. So the government has now launched a 100-day crackdown on illegal fishing that has so far netted 1,674 boats and more than 220,000 pounds of illicit fish.
It’s a laudable initiative. But it’s only scratching the surface of a global problem for China. Beyond its own rivers and seas, China’s distant fishing fleets are the leading actor in an unsustainable illegal trade that’s emptying fisheries from North Korea to West Africa. China has made few efforts to restrain this trade, and in some cases has encouraged it. In doing so, it has undermined its own claims to be a champion for emerging markets while worsening food security for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Over the past half-century, China’s economic ascent has led to a significant shift in its domestic diet. Meals once dominated by vegetables and grains are now rich in sugar, fats and proteins. Seafood has played a key role in this transition. Per-capita seafood consumption rose from 6.8 pounds in 1985 to 25 pounds in 2016, according to the government. Meeting that demand has required China to develop the world’s biggest seafood industry, which accounted for 58% of global aquaculture production in 2018.
But China’s consumers aren’t content just with farm-raised food. There’s a strong preference for fresh, wild-caught fish. One consequence is that between 1979 and 2013, China’s fleet of motorized fishing vessels grew from 55,225 to 694,905. Market demand, at home and overseas, spurred some of the growth. So, too, did government subsidies that targeted rural employment. A desire to project maritime power into strategically important regions also played a role.
The upshot was that, like other government-supported businesses, the seafood industry was allowed to prioritize political goals over sustainability and environmental protection. Over the decades, this approach has devastated China’s terrestrial environment as well as its fisheries. In 2016, Chinese media reported that the Yellow Sea, Bohai Sea and East China Sea — all once key fisheries — were effectively depleted. Two years later, President Xi Jinping declared that the Yangtze River had reached a “no fish” level.
Meanwhile, China has become a major player in distant-water fishing, or the exploitation of fisheries beyond a country’s national waters. Since 1950, the world’s total fished area has expanded from 60% to 90% of the oceans. China is by far the leading country in this practice, with a fleet that was recently estimated at nearly 17,000 vessels, though its true scale remains a mystery — likely even to the Chinese government itself.
The industry is notorious for engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, in violation of international laws and agreements. Various techniques — from using shell companies to disguise the ownership of vessels to turning off the beacons that identify ships — are used to obscure who fishes, and where fish are caught and sold. The goal is unambiguous: to harvest as many fish as possible, without regard to the impact on fisheries and biodiversity.
China is far from alone in these practices. But it is, by far, the world’s leading violator. In July and August, Chinese vessels accounted for 99% of visible fishing ships near protected waters off of the Galapagos Islands. During this plunder, research groups observed the ships turning off their transponders, presumably to hide their presence or intentions. Similar incidents have been recorded around the world in recent years, including in Peru, Malaysia, Namibia and Ghana. Earlier this year, China indicated it would crack down, but the practices and tensions have persisted.
In the absence of a substantial Chinese effort to rein in such violations, the U.S. is quickly establishing itself as a defender of global fisheries. In September, the U.S. Coast Guard joined the Ecuadorian navy in patrolling and monitoring the waters around the Galapagos, and last week Washington announced a plan to deploy cutters to deter illegal Chinese fishing in the Western Pacific. Long-term, though, such interventions are no more sustainable than China’s fishing practices.
A better option for everyone involved is a concerted effort by the Chinese government to regulate its fishing fleet away from home. An important first step would be to roll back the subsidies that incentivize overfishing, while imposing penalties for vessels that disable their identification systems. Such transparency would help to better understand the scale of the problem, and to trace it to its source. Ultimately, that should ratchet down the geopolitical tensions over unsustainable harvests, and help ensure that there’s enough fish in the sea for everyone.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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