China’s Distant Water Fishing Fleet and IUU fishing / by Francisco Blaha

China has been the world’s largest producer and exporter of fish since the early 2000s, with around half its seafood production being exported to developed countries; China is also the largest consumer of seafood. With depleted domestic fisheries, the Chinese fishing industry (and the government agencies that support them) has looked into aquaculture and distant water fisheries to satisfy domestic and export demand.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS-1994), countries have jurisdiction over resources in the waters within 200 miles off their shores, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). UNCLOS further stipulates that distant water fishing (DWF) fleets can harvest surplus fish in countries that do not have adequate capacity to exploit their fishery resources, in return for compensation to the host country. In theory this allows for more efficient fishing in developing countries that lack capacity and benefits those countries financially and technologically. China ratified this convention in 1996. Although UNCLOS addresses fishing within a state’s EEZ, it largely fails to address the problem of high seas fishing.

The UN created other global instruments such as the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of UNCLOS Relating to Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas to address oversight of marine fisheries. The former outlines principles for conservation and management of certain fish stocks, stipulating the use of the precautionary principle and the best available information to form the basis for management of certain fish stocks. The latter was adopted in 1993 and puts responsibility on the flag state for upholding measures for international conservation and management.

China’s DWF fleet is comparatively young, but it is also the largest in the world. As fish extraction rates from China’s coastal waters dropped dramatically in the 1980s, China created its DWF fleet in 1985 and since then Beijing’s policy has encouraged its development over that of domestic fisheries through preferential tax policies and funding allocations.  This fleet has grown tremendously—to over 2,000 vessels—and is likely to see continued expansion.

A study by the European Parliament estimated that, in the last decade (2000-2011), China’s DWF extracted 4.6 million tons of fish annually, the vast majority of which (3.1 million tons) came from African waters, followed by Asian waters, and smaller amounts from Oceania, Central and South America, and Antarctica. Of the 3.1 million tons extracted from Asian waters, the study shows, 2.5 million tons were IUU. 

Fisheries or Geopolitics?

Fisheries or Geopolitics?

As domestic pressures in their electorates increases, DWF fishing entities like the EU and Japan are required to make an effort to improve their practices, China may take advantage of the thus decreased fishing effort and compensate with an increase in Chinese fishing.

China does not disclose fishing information regarding the countries with which it has bilateral fisheries access agreements. Thus, in practice, all activities of the Chinese DWF—whether or not they are legal—are not transparent. The EU Parliament report notes that “the activities and catches of the Chinese distant-water fleets are almost completely undocumented and unreported, and often, as we shall see, may actually be illegal, thus spanning the entire gamut of IUU fishing.”

There is evidence suggesting that China over-reports its domestic catch numbers to the FAO because Chinese local government officials are rewarded with promotions for exceeding planned catch numbers. In contrast, China’s distant water catch may be under-reported due to international pressure. Overall, Chinese vessels have been reported in 93 countries and Antarctica, though Chinese sources produce a much lower number; the coastal waters in which Chinese fishers have not been spotted are those of the EU, the United States, and the Caribbean.

One of the major reasons for the increased IUU fishing is increasing global demand, especially increasing domestic demand in China. As Chinese citizens are lifted out of poverty and the middle class continues to grow, demand for meat and fish, both of which are relatively expensive, grows as well. Increased consumption of meat is desirable not only because of its high protein content, but also because of its indication of higher social status. A Rabobank study of China’s seafood industry indicates that as incomes rise the percentage of income spent on terrestrial protein decreases and the percentage spent on aquatic protein increases, because certain species of seafood are particular markers of status.

China’s demand for seafood has tripled since 1990 in per capita terms, but it is not just Chinese demand that is fueling IUU fishing, but demand from Japan and Western countries as well. Most of China’s high-value species and about half the overall catch are exported to the EU, the United States, and Japan, and the other half is brought back to China and sold domestically.

In addition to feeding global demand for fish, expansion of China’s DWF industry is a component of the central government’s goals of asserting the country as a rising power and implementing China’s ocean economic development plan. There is a sense of nationalism associated with this expansion, and also an idea that China deserves their fair share of the global fisheries pie. It is also important to note that China is very much emulating more established DWF nations such as the EU and Japan in the expansion of its own DWF industry.

Although China has been the largest exporter of marine fish products, significant portions of this amount are fish caught by other countries (i.e. a lot of NZ’s hoki), exported to China for processing cheaply under joint ventures and then re-exported out of China.

This importation requires a Certificate of Origin (CO) and a Health Certificate (HC) (and a Catch Certificate –CC- if going to the EU). The CO is concerned mainly with setting the appropriate tariff level and does not require fully addresses specific information about catch location or catch circumstances. The HC deals with sanitary issues (food safety) and while it in principle includes traceability of the fish to capture, it is not designed for catch origins and volumes purposes.  Their sanitary authority “China’s Inspection and Quarantine Bureau” assigns each incoming batch of fish a unique number and does not permit mixing of different batches, which is the closest measure to traceability that exists within the system, as these identification numbers are reported again when the fish are exported from China. Although there have been improvements in Chinese traceability efforts in recent years, these changes have mostly been driven by concern for sanitation standards rather than fish extraction origins. The EU CC, while in principle was design to address the legality and volumes of the harvested catch, did not took in consideration the complexities of the fisheries value chain, and is (unfortunately) easily fraudable. 

And while the EU has the means to pressure to China in terms of proving the legality of the catches caught and imported under the “control” of Chinese authorities, under the frame of their IUU legislation. It has chosen to focus their attention on smaller and less developed countries such as Togo, Cambodia, Belize, Fiji and Vanuatu; only recently started identifying DWFN players such as Philippines, PNG and Korea (a good move!). Not by coincidence, these countries are not key trading partners for the EU. 

Getting serious with China, on the other side could have serious trade consequences for the EU… even if it could have a massive impact in terms of global IUU fishing. So unfortunately, this Chinese “power card” allows them to continue with “business as usual”.

Key source:  Katie Lebling  -  Wilson Center