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The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Justin Pearce

China’s economy and population are growing rapidly. As their population increases, so does the demand for food. Feeding 1.3 billion people is no small feat, so being resourceful is essential; China has started looking everywhere possible for food, including the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers. Can a country so large remain resourceful and sustainable in its search to find enough seafood to support its people? The answer to this question will have worldwide ramifications, as most major oceanic fisheries are in decline and may not be able to withstand increased fishing pressure.

You cannot blame the Chinese people for turning to their own bodies of water for food and profit. The Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone (which is a subject of constant dispute with neighboring countries) extends 200 nautical miles from the coast and encompasses approximately 2,285,872 km2. Chinese territory and territorial waters range from temperate zones to tropical zones and include four major seas (the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the East and South China Seas). With nearly 3000 marine species in these waters, some of the major commercial fisheries include squid, yellow croaker, red snapper, cod, sea cucumber, and shrimp.

Just as China is the most populous country in the world, it also has the largest fleet of fishing vessels. In 2004, the marine fishing fleet consisted of 279,937 motorized vessels (FAO 2013). During the period from 2000 to 2010 there was an average of 1,800 vessels operating in distant waters (Blomeyer 2012).

Figure 1: Global reach of Chinese fisheries, as well as disputed EEZ zone (Blomeyer 2012)

Figure 1: Global reach of Chinese fisheries, as well as disputed EEZ zone (Blomeyer 2012)

Although the large figures given when talking about the available fishing waters in China seem limitless, that is not true.  Fortunately, back in the 1970’s the Chinese government was able to understand that concept.  They turned to an idea their ancestors had invented back in approximately 3500 BC, Aquaculture. Currently, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), which is a division of the United Nations, lists aquaculture as the fastest growing portion of the food sector and accounts for about 50% of the world’s food fish. According to FAO statistics (2013), Chinese aquaculture covered 7.28 million hectares, 980,000 ha more than in 1999. Total output was 30.61 million metric tons; 9.8 million metric tons greater than in 1999. Unfortunately, even with increased aquaculture production the demand for seafood remains very high.  So much so that when you see the catch reports compiled by the FAO for China, the increase each year is so high it appears exponential.

Figure 2: FAO Country profile for China

Figure 2: FAO Country profile for China

Surprisingly, China seems to be aware of the impact that overfishing can have, and the government has noticed a decrease in overall fish catch quality. More recent catches have consisted of smaller, less mature fish, as well as an increase in lower quality fish.  As a result, the government plan implemented a “zero growth” objective in 1999.  This created a moratorium on new fishing vessels. In 2001 the government took their management measures even further with a “minus growth” model by relocating fishermen and scrapping vessels. By 2004, the Chinese government had spent over US$100 million by relocating 40,000 fishermen and removing 8,000 fishing vessels from their waterways. These growth models that China implemented may also explain the visible plateau on the graph shown above. In 2003 the Chinese implemented measures to modify boat-permitting methods, and to decrease fishing vessels by an additional 30,000 by the year 2010. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any reports on whether this goal was met by 2010.

Another interesting development in Chinese fishery management came in 2006 when the Government of China issued the document entitled the Program of Action on Conservation of Living Aquatic Resources of China. The document stated that by 2010, deterioration of the aquatic environment, declining fisheries and rising number of endangered species would be stopped. Furthermore, over-capacity will be reduced while fishing operations will increase efficiency. (FAO 2013).

Additional mitigation methods have been also introduced in the past decade or so. One measure that was implemented is a “hot season” moratorium in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, which bans trawling and stake net fishing from June 16th to September 1st each year. This ban affects approximately 120,000 boats and one million fishermen every year. In 2004 the government also added Bohai Bay to this measure, allowing only gillnet fishing during the same period over the summer.

Doesn’t all this good news about China and their concern for the environment seem suspect? After all, it was just earlier this year when Beijing reported it’s worst air quality in recorded history (Ma 2013). Officials warned locals to stay in their homes due to the increased health risks due to the heavy pollution. There have been other reports of putting lead in baby toys, and cardboard into their food. This is not a country known for doing the “right thing.”

Most of the above statistics are based on ‘official’ Chinese reports, but a lot of people are skeptical that the reality of fishing in China is as positive as the government would like us to believe. Yet diving deeper to find critical reports on China and their environmental strategies is difficult. The government keeps a tight grip on their journalists, and censors much of the news in the country. It seems China’s leaders do not take kindly to criticism and do their best to keep it to a minimum. However, a study completed by the parliament of the European Union was able to uncover a report from within China. This 2010 study released by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) indicated additional areas of concern for the waters in and around China.

The CCICED study points out that in 2009 the polluted ocean area of China exceeded 50% of the total offshore ocean area. Some other disastrous statistics mentioned in that report include that since the 1950’s, China has cumulatively lost 50% of coastal wetlands, 57% of the mangrove areas, and 80% of its coral reefs. Another remark made by the CCICED was about China’s lack of ‘green’ development in regards to its seas (Blomeyer 2012).

Another topic of concern when it comes to China’s fisheries is their involvement in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing. This topic is covered quite well in the same EU study mentioned above. There have been additional articles as well documenting China’s illegal fishing of blue fin tuna in the Atlantic (Jolly 2012), as well as China’s illegal fishing in the EEZ of New Zealand (FIS 2012). While currently the FAO does not take into account these missing numbers when reporting catch data, these illegal catches amount to a substantial number and should be better incorporated in FAO reports.The E.U. study does attempt to estimate the extent of IUU fishing that is occurring. It seems China also has agreements with many countries to fish their waters, and much of that fishing seems to be unreported as well.

The FAO does it’s best to collect accurate information. However, the information being collected is reported by the collecting country, and therefore may not adequately reflect actual take (Watson 2001). An article from Nature (2001) brought this subject to light as it relates to China. The author claimed that reports to the FAO were inaccurate and often exaggerated. They found this to be true especially in China (Pearson 2001), which makes many of the “official statistics” mentioned above seem much less official. This is a general theme I think many people outside of China encounter when trying to do critical research into what is actually happening in China.  Not only is it discouraging when you are trying to seek the truth, but it is also very disconcerting as it relates to the health of our planet and oceans.

So is China sustainably fishing the oceans? I’m afraid the answer is probably no.  Their size and reputation make it impossible to presume otherwise.

Shifting toward more sustainable fisheries will not be an easy task. Unfortunately it will likely require a global grassroots movement to occur. That will mean asking all of us to really look at our oceans’ fisheries as one interconnected system—and even though China undoubtedly has a huge influence on the world’s oceans, we can’t just sit back and point the finger at any single country, regardless of its size or influence. Sustainable ocean management will depend upon the cooperation and transparency of all relevant countries.

Works Cited:

Blomeyer, R., Goulding, I., Pauly, D., Sanz, A., & Kim Stobberup, K. (2012, June). The Role of China in Fisheries. Roland BLOMEYER , Ian GOULDING , Daniel PAULY , Antonio SANZ, 1. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/pech/dv/chi/china.pdf

FAO Country Profile, China. (2013). FAO Country Profile, China. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://www.fao.org/fishery/countrysector/FI-CP_CN/en

Fish Info Service. (2012, October 22). Chinese vessels caught breaching fisheries law. Fish Info Service. Retrieved from Chinese vessels caught breaching fisheries law

Jolly, D. (2012, June 1). As Regulators Meet, Fishing Boats Thumb Their Noses. Green: A Blog about Energy and The Environment. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/as-regulators-meet-fishing-boats-thumb-their-noses/

Ma, W. (2013, January 14). Beijing Pollution Hits Highs Capital Sets Emergency Curbs, as Leaders Face Pressure to Clean Up Environment. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324235104578239142337079994.html

NOAA. (2007, June 4). China Fisheries. Index-China Table of Contents – NOAA Central Library. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://www.lib.noaa.gov/

Pearson, H. (2001). China caught out as model shows net fall in fish. Nature414(6863), 477-477.

Watson, R., & Pauly, D. (2001). Systematic distortions in world fisheries catch trends. Nature414(6863), 534-536.

Zhu, B., Hai-tao, Z., Ye, Q., Yan-fu, Q., & Jian-bo, C. (2009, February). Fish stocking program in the Yangtze River-. Fish Stocking Program in the Yangtze River–《Chinese Fisheries Economics. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTOTAL-ZYJJ200902013.htm

Author Bio: Justin Pearce, originally from Miami, but has been living in Los Angeles for the last 10 years. He is currently a sophomore at USC, majoring in Environmental Studies. He has a strong interest in marine ecosystems and fishery management.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity
The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island
Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences
Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do
Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor
Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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