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Boats behaving badly: New report analyzes China’s own fisheries data

China’s distant-water fishing fleet, which operates on the high seas and in other countries’ waters, is far bigger and catches far more seafood than those of other nations.

China’s distant-water fishing fleet, which operates on the high seas and in other countries’ waters, is far bigger and catches far more seafood than those of other nations. Image © EJF.

  • China’s distant-water fishing fleet, which operates on the high seas and in other countries’ waters, is far bigger and catches far more seafood than those of other nations.
  • As a result, and also because of numerous high-profile cases of illegal behavior, the Chinese fleet receives intense scrutiny from international NGOs and the media.
  • A new report, based mainly on data China released since enacting transparency measures in 2017 as well as a database of global fisheries violations and crew interviews, identified hundreds of fisheries offenses committed by the fleet between 2015 and 2019, and details a range of human rights abuses and environmentally destructive fishing practices.
  • However, some experts say that although the Chinese fleet is by far the biggest, vessel for vessel its behavior isn’t all that different from other fleets, and that all share responsibility to reform.

China’s distant-water fishing fleet eclipses that of other nations, and so does its rap sheet, according to the authors of a recent report based mainly on data released by China.

Distant-water fishing, with vessels that travel the globe hunting seafood on the high seas and in other countries’ waters, is a notoriously opaque and poorly regulated sector. Many nations fall short of publishing comprehensive information on their fleets’ activities, with China making limited data available only in the past few years. This is the first “global footprint” analysis of Chinese distant-water fleet operations, gear and ownership to use it, the authors say.

The report, published at the end of March by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a U.K. nonprofit, finds that China’s distant-water fleet “is frequently associated with illegal fishing,” having identified more than 300 confirmed and 240 suspected fisheries offenses between 2015 and 2019. It details a range of human rights abuses and environmentally destructive fishing practices committed on board Chinese vessels.

EJF has previously investigated other distant-water fishing fleets, including those of Taiwan and South Korea. “Chinese vessels have the highest rates (not just overall case numbers) of alleged IUU fishing and abuses,” Max Schmid, EJF’s chief operating officer, told Mongabay by email, referring to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. He said it’s “critical” that China embrace transparency and prioritize regulatory improvements to reform its fleet.

However, some experts say that though the Chinese fleet is much bigger than that of other distant-water fishing nations, its behavior isn’t all that different and that all share responsibility to reform.

EJF’s report details a range of human rights abuses and environmentally destructive fishing practices committed on board Chinese vessels. Image © EJF.

The biggest fleet

China capped its distant-water fleet at 3,000 ships in 2020. The actual number is unclear, but many estimates hover around 2,700. Taiwan comes in a distant second with some 1,150 vessels, according to EJF, followed by Japan, South Korea and Spain. Estimates suggest China is responsible for 38% of the distant-water fishing activities of the world’s 10 largest fleets in other countries’ waters.

“China’s fleet dwarfs all others in terms of catch, number of vessels and impact,” Whitley Saumweber, a professor of marine affairs and senior associate of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, D.C., told Mongabay. As a result, and also because of numerous high-profile cases of illegal behavior, the Chinese fleet fleet receives intense scrutiny from international NGOs and the media.

EJF’s analysis relied primarily on data about vessel inspections and replacement, fishing infractions, and offshore fishing project approvals between 2017 and 2020 that the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) made public for the first time following 2017 updates to transparency regulations.

The report also incorporated 2015 to 2019 data from the Criminal Record of Fishing, which purports to be the largest global database of IUU offenses, derived from government, NGO and media sources. And it drew on more than 100 interviews EJF conducted with Indonesian and Ghanaian crew members of Chinese-owned fishing vessels during 2020 and 2021.

Fishermen on a Chinese vessel off western Africa. Image © Liu Yuyang / Greenpeace.

Fishy findings

The most prevalent offense was fishing without a license, at about 43% of the 554 total transgressions, the report said. Other, unspecified, fisheries violations were next in line at about 33%, followed by use of banned gear at about 12%.

Next up was targeting of prohibited species at 10% of the total offenses. Firsthand accounts of hunting turtles, cetaceans and seals came from more than a third of the Indonesian and Ghanaian interviewees. Other environmentally damaging activities included shark finning, at about 7%. However, 95% of the interviewees said they had witnessed shark finning. The controversial process of cutting off fins and throwing the shark back, often still alive, is prohibited in many jurisdictions due to its cruelty and the environmental impact of removing top predators from the sea.

Last on the list of offenses was human rights abuse, at less than 3% of the total. However, the crew members spoke of serious and widespread abuses. Eighty-five percent described abusive living and working conditions, and almost 98% reported withheld money and/or personal documents. More than half said they had been physically abused, according to the report.

Africa is a particularly popular destination for China’s distant-water fleet, the report said, with 78% of offshore fishery projects approved by MARA falling within the exclusive economic zones of 20 African states. Mauritania, in West Africa, was the destination for 30% of the approved projects. Throughout West Africa, foreign fleets, mainly from EU countries and China, have proven devastating for local peoples’ food security and livelihoods, according to NGO reports and news accounts. EJF’s report describes this region as a “key destination” for Chinese bottom trawlers, vessels that drag a heavy net across the seafloor, often plowing up habitats and catching undersize fish or non-target species in the process.

EJF’s analysis found a shift in China’s distant-water fleet from total state ownership to predominantly private ownership, which the report suggests may have “loosened the Chinese government’s control over the activities of Chinese fishing enterprises.” But the top 20 IUU culprits still include six state-owned enterprises.

“These findings highlight the overarching failure of the Chinese government to effectively control and regulate its distant-water fleet,” Steve Trent, EJF’s CEO and founder, said in a press release about the report.

A crew member kills a shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), a species the IUCN lists as endangered, on board a Chinese longline fishing vessel. Image © Alex Hofford / Greenpeace.

Transparency

Public access to MARA data is an “important step” for China toward transparency, according to the EJF report. However, looking beyond China, the foundation’s Schmid said, “Overall we need to see many more states publishing much more data much more frequently.”

Some states publish “some types of credible data,” he said, citing as examples the EU’s fleet register and list of vessels authorized to operate outside EU waters. But transparency in one area doesn’t mean transparency in all. For instance, when EU members of parliament voted for mandatory traceability of seafood products from catch to retail in March 2021, they simultaneously voted to increase the margin of error allowed in reporting fisheries catch to 40%. This would mean almost half of catches need never be reported at all.

The EJF report points out that transparency may bring undesirable side effects: States choosing to publish IUU data face the “strong possibility” of finding themselves under harsh scrutiny, whereas those that don’t can continue to operate in the shadows.

Regardless of any reputational cost, state-level transparency to identify “where vessels are operating and where the seafood they catch ends up” is crucial to eliminating “systemic illegality and cruelty at sea,” Schmid said.

A fish landing and market in St Louis, Senegal. Africa is a particularly popular destination for China’s distant-water fleet: the EJF report said 78% of offshore fishery projects approved by China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs fall within the exclusive economic zones of 20 African states, where local populations tend to depend on fish for protein. Image by DEZALB via Pixabay.

Does bigger mean worse behaved?

Reaching distant waters is so expensive that fleets typically require state subsidies and cheap labor to turn a profit, according to Saumweber. This incentivizes “bad behavior in terms of both resource and human labor exploitation,” he said. Meanwhile, the remoteness of the fishing grounds and a widespread lack of transparency make governance challenging for all states.

“China is absolutely not the only bad actor with respect to distant-water fishing fleets,” Saumweber said. Taiwan, South Korea and Spain all have significant fleets involved in what he described as “regionally meaningful cases of IUU.” But the scale of China’s distant-water fleet and how the country wields it give it a disproportionate effect on how the whole sector works, he said.

Not everyone agrees that China’s distant-water fleet behaves worse, vessel-for vessel, than other states’ fleets. It’s just really, really big, according to Rashid Sumaila, an expert in fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

“I am pretty sure that if the Chinese DWF is scaled to [other nations’] size they are very unlikely to loom so large,” Sumaila told Mongabay. Adjusting for size, he said he estimates “bad behaviour levels” would be similar across states with the biggest distant-water fishing fleets.

“The fact that this report focuses only on China undermines it somewhat,” Sumaila said. “We need policies that are designed to change the behaviour of all major DWF nations not just China.”

Sumaila is working on research to characterize distant-water fishing in the EEZs of less-industrialized nations for USAID. This will inform ongoing international negotiations about harmful fisheries subsidies at the World Trade Organization and potentially contribute toward a U.N. treaty for sustainable resource use on the high seas, he said. China is a member of both, along with many other fishing nations, and all must cooperate to achieve progress.

Reaching distant waters is so expensive that fleets typically require state subsidies and cheap labor to turn a profit, according to marine experts. Image © EJF.

What is China doing?

The EJF report makes recommendations for policymakers in China and globally about how best to curb damaging activities by the Chinese distant-water fleet. These include more robust transparency measures, abolishment of subsidies by December 2023, and increased international pressure on China to drive reforms.

Yet China is taking steps of its own. There were the 2017 transparency measures. In 2020, it introduced wide-ranging reforms to its distant-water fishing regulation. And its 14th Five-Year Plan for Fisheries, published in January, indicates that aquaculture, not its distant-water fleet, will expand to meet China’s food security targets. The plan aims to keep annual distant-water catch targets at 2.3 million metric tons. MARA did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment on reform results and the allegations in the EJF report.

With no expansion plans, the knock-on effects if China were to adopt and fully enforce transparent, sustainable distant-water fishing practices would be a game changer, according to Saumweber.

“No one is going to successfully tell China what to do with their fleet,” he said. “But if we can convince them that a commitment to transparency and global standards for sustainability are in their best interests, it would have a transformative effect on the global market and a cascading impact on the behavior of other fleets.”

Banner image: China’s distant-water fishing fleet, which operates on the high seas and in other countries’ waters, is far bigger and catches far more seafood than those of other nations. Image © EJF.

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