The government is subsidising an industry that is growing rapidly, fishing in waters as far away as South America and Antarctica
Fishermen arrange nets at the Qingkou port in east China’s Jiangsu province. Photograph: Xinhua / Barcroft Images
China’s vast, long-distance fishing industry has expanded to more than 10 times the size of America’s and its growth is depleting fisheries and creating conflicts, according to a Greenpeace report.
From 2012 to 2014, the number of Chinese vessels involved in “distant water fishing” [DFW] – harvesting seafood on the high seas or in other countries’ waters – grew from 1,830 to 2,460.
The Chinese government is directly driving this growth by subsidising fuel costs and other expenses, according to the environmental group.
“Subsidies for China’s DFW industry are intensifying the inefficiency of the industry and the destruction of the environment,” a Greenpeace report said. “Although the Chinese government defines the DWF industry as a ‘strategic industry’, the current model for subsidies does more harm than good.”
Officials at China’s agriculture ministry, which oversees the nation’s fishing industry, were not immediately available for comment. In the past, China has declared it will follow applicable laws and always “uphold the normal order” when fishing on the high seas.
No one knows how much fish China hauls each year from distant waters, but in 2013 the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated it at 4.6m tonnes – far more than Beijing reported to the UN. The bulk of this fishing takes place off the coast of west Africa, but Chinese fleets are increasingly plying waters off Antarctica and Central and South America.
In March, Argentina sank a Chinese boat it claimed was fishing illegally in its waters. Indonesia, South Africa and the Philippines have all had recent run-ins with Chinese fishing fleets.
Last year, China alarmed marine scientists by announcing it wanted to increase harvests of krill from Antarctica from a current level of 32,000 tonnes to 2m tonnes.
Adelie penguins leap into the sea at Paulet Island in Antarctica. Photograph: G Lacz/Alamy Stock Photo
Krill are small crustaceans and a vital food source for Antarctic wildlife, especially penguins, whose numbers have dwindled in recent decades. Like other nations, China harvests krill to make a variety of products, ranging from livestock feed to omega-3 dietary supplements.
Chinese fleets in particular have been using boat propellers to dislodge giant clams in the area, causing widespread environmental damage to coral reefs, according to John McManus, a University of Miami marine biology professor who has conducted research in the region.
“There will be a major collapse of fisheries in the South China Sea if something isn’t done,” McManus said in a recent interview. “The fate of hundreds of thousands of people depends on this fishery for their livelihood.”
According to Greenpeace, Beijing’s fleet subsidies are increasing fish harvests, but they are also creating the same kind of excess capacity that is plaguing China’s steel mills and other industries. In other words, government investments in fishing fleets are not producing a corresponding increase in revenues.
In Fujian province, for instance, the number of distant-water vessels grew 149% from 2012 to 2014, but the production value increased only 63%, according to Greenpeace.
China’s fishing subsidies “need to be reformed in order to promote healthy development and an industry which can sustain healthy oceans,” said Li Shuo, a global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia and an author of the report.