China's Illegal Fishing Expeditions Threaten World Waters

China's Illegal Fishing Expeditions Threaten World Waters
Fish for sale at a market in Hong Kong
Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Lots of undocumented goods are procured and traded off the books in China—including fish. That’s a growing concern for the coastal patrols of China’s neighbors and West African countries, as well as for international environmental watchdogs.

During the first nine months of this year, South Korean authorities seized or punished 266 Chinese fishing vessels for operating illegally in South Korean waters, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Nor was 2013 exceptional. Over the past decade, 4,600 unlicensed Chinese vessels were apprehended in South Korean waters, reports Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Those unauthorized vessels reel in vast, often-hidden, hauls. While China routinely over-reports its domestic marine catch to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the country massively under-reports the tonnage of fish reeled in by distant-water fleets, according to a report prepared by researchers at the University of British Columbia and funded (PDF) by the European Parliament’s Committee on Committee on Fisheries.

Chinese vessels operating in foreign waters caught, on average, 4.6 million tons of fish annually between 2000 and 2011, cumulatively worth $12 billion, the report estimates. That includes an estimated 3.1 million tons of fish caught off African coasts, 80 percent of which was unreported.

“China’s massive distant-water fishing fleet is problematic for a few reasons, the most prominent being that a significant portion of its catch is illegal, unreported, or unregulated,” the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Katie Lebling wrote in a Nov. 11 research brief. That means it’s impossible to ensure sustainable fishing practices.

According to the FAO’s 2012 report, State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, global fisheries are in peril: “The increased percentage of overexploited fish stocks … around the world convey the strong message that the state of world marine fisheries is worsening.” The number of fish in the sea is not infinite.

Tabitha Grace Mallory, a former research associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research, is now working on a book about China and global fisheries governance. According to her research, the impetus to rein in illegal Chinese fishing expeditions is unlikely to come directly from Beijing. “China is the world’s second largest subsidizer of its fishing industry,” she wrote in a 2012 paper in the journal Marine Policy, and this includes generous subsidies for fishing ventures operating far from domestic shores. By 2015, China “aims to increase its DWF [distant-water fishing] fleet to 2,300 ships,” up from the current 2,000 vessels. That’s not good news for global fisheries.

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