China’s fishing fleet is rapidly expanding as the country emphasizes policies aimed at shoring up food supplies. But as the fleet ranges all over the globe, it is getting criticized for overfishing and coming into confrontation with other countries’ vessels in contested areas such as the South China Sea.
China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of fish with around half its seafood production being exported to developed countries; it is also the largest consumer of seafood.
Duncan Ledbetter, a director of the fisheries and natural resource consulting company, Fish Matter, said a race for diminishing resources is driving China’s search for fish around the world, with fish habitats near China’s coast having succumbed to pollution and overfishing.
“Well you’ve got two things happening. One is overfishing. The second, which is sort of widespread, is north and south and close in shore to out to the end of the continental shelf, but then you also, particularly inshore have all sorts of pollution problems and habitat loss problems,” he said.
China’s distant water fishing fleet has grown to be the world’s largest, with more than 2,000 vessels. A study by the European Parliament estimated that between 2000 and 2011 Chinese fishermen extracted 4.6 million tons of fish annually, the vast majority of which came from African waters, followed by Asian waters, and smaller amounts from Central and South America, and Antarctica.
Some observers, like Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former senior official in the Australian Department of Defense, say China’s expanded fishing grounds give it a chance to establish a significant presence in regions that are of long term strategic importance.
“I just think it’s the same type of middle approach not just to Antarctica marine resources but also the capacity to position China to the long-term future possibility of resource extraction from the Antarctic continent itself,” said Jennings.
Last month a Chinese company announced it would expand its fishing operations to Antarctica to catch more krill. The announcement followed the opening of a fourth research station by China on the continent and Chinese investment in two icebreakers and ice-capable planes and helicopters on Antarctica.
Tensions with other countries over China’s expanded presence on the sea have risen. Last month Indonesia blew up a Chinese boat it said was fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. According to the South Korean government, the number of Chinese fishing vessels in South Korean waters is growing every year. More than 1,000 Chinese fishing ships illegally accessed exclusive South Korean waters in 2014.
Greenpeace said Chinese fishing boats have also been illegally fishing in huge numbers off West Africa. Rashid Kang of the Greenpeace Beijing office said with its outdated, deep trawler ships, China’s expanding fishing operations risk damaging the ecosystems of foreign waters, as Chinese laws barring these outdated ships do not apply to its vessels fishing abroad.
“They have been promulgating this new law to ban bottom trawler fishing in Chinese waters. So I think that kind of thing has not been discussed for Chinese vessels that are fishing in other countries,” stated Kang. “So I think there is a double standard here.”
A team of international scientists recently attempted to estimate the distant water fleet catch by Chinese vessels between 2000 and 2011. The scientists called for greater transparency in an article in the journal Fish and Fisheries, writing that the catch by Chinese fishing vessels is almost completely undocumented and unreported.
According to the study China’s catch of more than 4.6 million tons of fish per year is in stark contrast to the 368,000 tons China officially reported to the United Nations.