Environment & energy, Trade and industry, Food & water | Asia, East Asia, The World

19 December 2017

Recent policy moves by the Chinese government encouragingly point to a new focus on the long-term sustainability of global fish stocks, Tabitha Mallory writes.

Fisheries experts do not agree on the extent to which global fish stocks are depleted. However, most do agree that most stocks are in decline and require better conservation measures. In particular, fish stocks in Africa and Southeast Asia are under-assessed and under-regulated — precisely the regions where the Chinese distant water fishing (DWF) fleet is highly active.

While the bad news is that China likely is fishing unsustainably and under-reporting its catch abroad, the good news is that the Chinese government has recently acknowledged that there is a problem. Policy changes reflected in the ‘13th National Fisheries Five-year Plan’ and in other official government documents signal that China is shifting toward a more sustainable approach for its global fishing fleet.

China has long recognised that fish stocks in its own waters are threatened. It issued a new policy in 1983 to relieve pressure on capture fisheries by channelling production into the development of aquaculture and DWF industries.

Aquaculture has boomed: China has raised aquaculture’s share of total production from 44 per cent in 1984 to 76 per cent in 2015. It has also issued policies to more strictly control domestic capture, such as by decommissioning fishing vessels, launching seasonal fishing moratoria, and calling for stricter enforcement of fishing regulations.

More on this: Stop blaming China for the state of the world's fishing stocks

China’s distant water fishing, which occurs on the high seas and in the coastal waters of other countries, has also expanded unfettered since the first fleet of 13 vessels set sail to West Africa in 1985. By the end of the 12th Five-year Plan in 2015, China’s 164 DWF enterprises operated a fleet numbering 2,512 — the largest in the world. The official total catch reached a high of 2.2 million tons worth RMB 21 billion in 2015, with official operations occurring in 40 other countries, on the high seas and in Antarctica.

This expansion has been fuelled by preferential policies, including tax breaks on imports of fishing vessels and gear purchased abroad, tax exemptions on income and overseas production, and subsidies for fuel and vessel building. China’s official government plans for the DWF industry, such as the ‘2001–2010 Master Plan for Developing China’s Distant Water Fishing Industry’ [我国远洋渔业发展总体规划 (2001–2010)] and the 11th and 12th National Fisheries Five-year Plans, have called for expanding the fleet size and total catch.

But China has struck a different tone recently. In the recent 13th Fisheries Five-year Plan, for the first time the core goal of the central authority has not been to expand the size of the DWF industry. China did not immediately set a 2020 target for expanding the number of vessels, and the target catch is set at 2.3 million tons, only a smidgeon over the peak reached in 2015.

Just this month, China released a specific plan for the DWF industry that announced a cap of 3,000 fishing vessels by the year 2020 and a limit on the number of DWF enterprises at the 2016 level. In 2016, total reported DWF catch had fallen to 1.99 million tons. Perhaps recognising the real limits of the resource, China just realises it cannot build castles in the air.

China is also addressing illegal fishing. In a new section on DWF safety and supervision, the 2015 China Fisheries Yearbook for the first time acknowledged some of the illegal actions of China’s distant water fleet, stating that in the previous year 13 accidents occurred, in which five laws were broken. Both the 2015 and 2016 yearbooks state that such incidents harm China’s reputation as a responsible fishing nation and announce new training courses for DWF enterprise management. They also list the use of punitive measures to address illegal actions, such as fines, license revocation and suspension, and the removal of fishing subsidies.

These changes, though just a first step, are significant because they show that China is increasingly prioritising the sustainability of global fish stocks, and not just those in its own waters. These policy shifts also indicate that China values its reputation abroad, and that it pays attention to reactions to its behaviour from the international community.

More on this: Saving the South China Sea fishery

Instead of expanding the DWF industry, China will be working to upgrade DWF production, increasing control over the industrial supply chain from point of capture, storage, shipping and processing to distribution, retail, marketing and branding. China has already launched 30 bases abroad and has over 100 global partnerships, including joint ventures, for this purpose. We are also likely to see more Chinese mergers and acquisitions in this space.

These developments will have ongoing policy implications for sustainability and fairness in host countries. Transparency in these deals is essential but often lacking. And all countries will need to continue efforts to address illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Furthermore, high seas fishing is not completely regulated. China has been shifting production to the high seas, underscoring the need for a solid framework for fisheries management in these waters. Initiatives like the Arctic Council’s decision to close the Arctic to fishing until more is understood about this potential resource is an example of a constructive policy.

China’s new attention to preserving the world’s supply of fish is promising. But China’s global maritime ambitions are much broader than developing its DWF industry. Over the next several decades the country will expand its naval power, ocean economy, and marine science and technology. It will play an increased role in governing the global commons, but uncertainty remains about how this will unfold. So it is critical that other countries likewise give ocean issues the attention they deserve.

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