China’s fishing fleet, which reaches as far as Latin America, West Africa, and even Antarctica, is adding to a worldwide strain on fish stocks.
So it’s no surprise that Chinese fishermen have been involved in clashes with foreign fishermen and coast guards at great distances from their homeland.
In perhaps the most dramatic clash, which occurred in March 2016, Argentina’s coast guard sank a Chinese trawler that was fishing within its territorial waters more than 11,000 miles from its home base on the China coast. The trawler had tried to ram the Argentine vessel.
Argentine Navy submarines have been assigned to “chase down illegal fishing vessels in the frigid waters off southern Argentina,” according to a Wall Street Journal report from that country published early this month.
Reuters news agency, meanwhile, reported at the end of August that Ecuador had jailed 20 Chinese fishermen for up to four years for illegally fishing off the Galapagos Islands, where they were caught with some 6,600 sharks.
Their vessel contained some 300 tons of near-extinct or endangered species, including hammerhead sharks.
Incidents have also occurred near South Korea and in disputed areas in the South China Sea, where Chinese Coast Guard ships have clashed with Vietnamese fishermen.
Pressures in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea leading to incidents like this are driving China to fish elsewhere in the world.
Chinese fishermen target West Africa
In April 2017, The New York Times reported from Senegal that Chinese fishermen were increasingly heading to West Africa.
The fishermen are enabled by corrupt local governments and their weak enforcement of fishing limits.
Citing experts, The Times states that West Africa now provides “the vast majority” of fish caught by China’s distant-water fishing fleet.
Fishing off the coast of Senegal, “most of the Chinese ships are so large that they scoop up as many fish in one week as Senegalese boats catch in a year,” The Times report said.
Most of the fish are sent abroad, with some of it ending up as fishmeal fodder for chickens and pigs in Europe and the United States.
For Senegalese citizens, many of whom depend on fish as a source of protein, diminishing fish catches mean higher food prices.
In nearby Sierra Leone, meanwhile, a similar scenario is playing out.
The Economist Magazine reported on Dec. 7 from Sierra Leone that “nearly half of the population” of 7.4 million people in the small west African nation “does not have enough to eat.”
“But the country’s once plentiful shoals, combined with its weak government, have lured a flotilla of unscrupulous foreign trawlers to its waters.”
Most of the trawlers fly Chinese flags, but dozens also come from South Korea, Italy, Guinea, and Russia.
According to Tabitha Mallory, an expert on these issues, by 2015 more than 160 Chinese fishing enterprises had agreements to operate off the shores of some 40 countries, the high seas, and Antarctica. But other Chinese vessels may be operating in more countries illegally.
But in contrast with West Africa, where Chinese fishermen have done great harm to local economies, Antarctica stands out as a new frontier where the fishermen appear to have begun playing by internationally agreed upon rules.
China has joined a commission for the conservation of marine life in Antarctica and has pledged its support for a marine protected area on the cold continent.
However, poor regulation of China’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet elsewhere has added to a strain on global fish stocks, according to experts and nongovernmental organizations monitoring the issue.
Greenpeace, a nongovernmental organization which campaigns to change attitudes toward the environment, has found that from 2014-2016, China’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleet -- vessels operating outside Chinese territorial waters -- increased by 400 to nearly 2,900.
This followed a similar period of expansion between 2012 and 2014, when the fleet grew by 15 percent each year on average.
By comparison, the United States had just 225 large-size DWF vessels, according to 2015 data.
China plans to restrict fishing fleet growth
The danger posed to fish stocks by China’s growing fleet and the clashes between Chinese fishing boats and foreign fishermen and coast guards, appears to have caused Beijing to start trying to better regulate China’s distant waters fishing fleet -- the largest in the world.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture recently released its 13th Five-Year Plan for distant water fisheries management, restricting the total number of offshore fishing vessels to under 3,000 in 2020 and capping the number of ocean fishing enterprises at 2016 levels.
Writing for the Australia-based Policy Forum, Tabitha Mallory says that the recent policy moves by the Chinese government “encouragingly point to a new focus on the long-term sustainability of global fish stocks.”
Fisheries experts, Mallory says, don’t agree on the extent to which global fish stocks are depleted. But they do agree that most stocks are in decline.
Fish stocks in Africa and Southeast Asia are “under-assessed” and “under-regulated,” says Mallory.
But these are “precisely the regions where the China’s distant-water fishing fleet is highly active,” says Mallory, who is an affiliate professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
Mallory is also a consultant at the China Ocean Institute.
“The good news is that the Chinese government has recently acknowledged that there’s a problem,” she says.
But Mallory says that this should not be overstated.
“We’re not out of the woods,” she says, adding that a number of Chinese fishing vessels are still fishing illegally and unsustainably.
China’s fishing fleet expansion has been fueled by preferential policies, including tax breaks on imports of fishing equipment purchased abroad and subsidies for fuel and vessel building.
But for the first time, the Chinese government is currently no longer calling for an expansion of the fleet.
“These policy shifts …indicate that China values its reputation abroad and that it pays attention to the reactions to its behavior from the international community,” Mallory says.
Another positive sign is that China has been shifting much of its fish production to aquaculture. Prof. Mallory describes this as “a boom.”
But also worth watching in the future are Chinese provinces and companies which would still like to expand their fishing catch rather than curb it.
Greenpeace says that a decision to delegate the management of China’s vessel monitoring system (VMS) to the China Distant Water Fisheries Association, a private organization representing fishing boat operators, constitutes a conflict of interest.
Then there is the murky issue of fuel subsidies for fishing-boat operators, which are often provided by provincial authorities.
For more than a decade, the World Trade Organization has been calling for a more disciplined policy regarding fishing-boat subsidies.
Dr. Mallory predicts that more mergers and acquisitions will occur in the Chinese fishing industry. “Transparency in these deals is essential but often lacking,” she says.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.