China’s efforts to curb overfishing

Author: Hongzhou Zhang, RSIS and Geneviève Donnellon-May, University of Oxford

Global fish stocks are facing a crisis, with almost all classified as fully exploited, overexploited or significantly depleted. China is the biggest contributor to this problem as the world leader in exports and imports of fish products. It is simultaneously responsible for 15% of the world’s total fish caught and a third of the world’s fish consumption.

China’s huge fishing fleet is often accused of overfishing far beyond the country’s territorial waters. Research suggests that Chinese fishing fleets have entered the waters of more than 90 countries and depleted fish stocks. With growing geopolitical tension between the United States and China, more attention is being paid to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by Chinese fishing vessels in the Asia-Pacific. In May 2022, the Quad announced a new maritime initiative aimed at curbing illegal Chinese fishing in the Indo-Pacific.

In January 2022, China’s Ministry of Agriculture released its 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) for Fisheries Development (2021-2025). The key message of the plan is that China will continue to push for a major restructuring of its fishing sector.

Since 1978, the development of China’s fisheries sector has been greatly influenced by central government policy and can be divided into four periods. During the first period from 1979 to the mid-1990s, the fisheries sector was mainly aimed at increasing production to meet the growing demand for fish products.

During the second period, from 1995 to 2010, overfishing, land reclamation and industrial pollution severely depleted stocks in China’s traditional fishing grounds. The central government has responded by curbing overfishing in the marine capture sector and focusing on the growth of aquaculture. From the mid-1990s, China introduced various fishing license systems to reduce the size of its fishing fleet. But in 2006, a fishing fuel subsidy blew up the fishing boat building industry. The combination of the depletion of Chinese fish stocks and the increase in the number of fishing vessels being built has encouraged Chinese fishing operations to expand outward.

During the third period from 2011 to 2015, the central government shifted its policy towards catching more and further developing aquaculture production. Increased support from central and local governments for the outward expansion of the country’s marine fishing sector amid rising tensions in the country has sparked important diplomatic and neighborly relations with China.

From 2016, China sought to reduce its island and marine harvesting sectors while expanding its aquaculture. The 13th FYP for Fisheries Development indicated China’s goal of reducing both its fishing fleet and its total catch by 2020, and reducing its notorious . During this period, China began to pilot systems that determined the total allowable catch and allocated it among vessels.

The 14th FYP is largely a continuation of restructuring efforts since 2017. It limited marine catches in Chinese coastal waters to 10 million tons and further reduced the number of large and medium-sized fishing vessels. . China also aims to stabilize its total deep-sea fishing output at 2.3 million tons while strictly controlling the size of its deep-sea fishing fleet.

In 2022, China ended its fishing fuel subsidies and established subsidies for fisheries stewardship. But growing demand for fish products and the vital role of the fisheries sector in China’s food security strategy have led to further increases in its total annual fish production from 65.47 million tonnes in 2020 to 69 million. tonnes in 2025. The increase is expected to come mainly from marine farming.

As the production of domestic marine catches is capped, the growing domestic demand for high quality fish products will also have to be met by imports. China has recently eased its control over imports of fish products and inflows of fish are increasing.

China’s recent efforts to control its sea fisheries appear to be bearing fruit. The size of the country’s fishing fleet and total catch production Local protectionism remains a persistent problem as local governments often do not comply with central government policies as they are more concerned with economic growth and employment .

These structural changes could reduce IUU fishing, reduce fishing conflicts in contested waters. and help restore depleted fish stocks. China’s decision to replace the infamous fishing fuel subsidy with fisheries stewardship subsidies is also critical to the success of the WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies. But the rapid expansion of China’s aquaculture sector will depend on fishmeal and trash fish for feed. This could further undermine the importance of fisheries both nationally and internationally.

Dr. Hongzhou Zhang is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Geneviève Donnellon-May is a Masters candidate in Water Science, Policy and Management at the University of Oxford.

Melvin B. Baillie