China pledges to cut size of its massive fishing fleet due to serious threat to nation’s fish stocks — Plus: How China’s trawlers are emptying Guinea’s oceans

Government minister says industry must develop in a way that is not destructive to the environment

By Stephen Chen
South China Morning Post

Monday, August 15, 2016, 8:39 p.m.

Overfishing in Chinese rivers and seas has seriously depleted stocks and the government is to cut the size of the nation’s fishing fleet, the agricultural ministry said.

A well-known fishermen in Tanmen, Hainan province, said local fishermen have been told not to increase their fleet while counterparts in other provinces have been told to cut the number of ships by 3 per cent.

The ministry said there were practically “no fish” in the coastal East China Sea and fishermen also had a hard time finding a catch in many other coastal waters, according to a state radio report on Sunday.

Agriculture minister Han Changfu told China National Radio that it was time to trim China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, to protect fish stocks.

Han, the minister in charge of the fishery sector, listed a series of actions the department planned to take against the industry’s overexpansion, including cutting the number of fishing vessels.

China’s deep-sea fishing in the world’s oceans must develop under tightened regulations, supervision and self-discipline, “gradually getting rid of the outdated ways of production that are destructive to the environment,” Han said.

The minister did not provide figures for plans to cut the fishing fleet.

He said, however, that the proposals would ultimately help raise fishermen’s incomes.

The ministry says Chinese controlled seas can sustain a catch of between eight million to nine million tonnes per year, but in recent years the catch has been about 13 million tonnes.

Similar depletions have also occurred in inland waterways.

For instance, the top four fish species now lay less than one billion eggs a year in rivers, down from about 30 billion, the radio report said, citing agricultural ministry data.

China consumes more than a third of the world’s seafood supply.

The World Bank forecasts demand for seafood in China will increase by another 30 per cent by 2030.

Many coastal provinces in China give diesel subsidies to ocean-going trawlers, helping to increase the number in operation.

As the fuel counts for more than a third of the fishing industry’s operational costs, according to some mainland media reports, the subsidies allowed the fleet’s production capacity to double between 2012 and 2014.

Poor catches in coastal waters have driven Chinese fishermen further afield, including to disputed waters near China and even as far as the Indian Ocean. Japan’s government protested earlier this month after more than 230 Chinese fishing boats and armed coastguard ships sailed into the waters near the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

China’s strengthening of territorial claims over the South China Sea has also pushed fishermen in Hainan to go further to fish, and with government subsidies.

He Shixuan, the fisherman from Tanmen who owns five steel-hulled trawlers, said fishermen there were also affected by the policy to cut back the size of fleets.

“While our counterparts in other provinces are required to slash up to three per cent, in Hainan we’re only required to retain zero growth,” he said.

With more than 40 years’ experience at sea, He recalled how in his youth fish could be seen where you looked, but today one has to search hard for a catch.

“One third of fish in the sea has gone over the past few years,” he said. “Compared with the 1980s, fish stocks have fallen by 60 per cent.”

China has taken several steps to curb overfishing, including banning nets with extremely small holes that catch very young fish and sea creatures.

It also imposes a three-month offshore fishing moratorium every year.

The decision to reduce the fishing fleets was “certainly a good thing to do”, but not enough, said Professor Cai Shengli, a marine biologist at the College of Fisheries and Life Science at Shanghai Ocean University.

If the government removed smaller, older boats from the fleet the industry would build bigger vessels capable of longer-distance voyages as long as Chinese consumers’ demand for seafood kept growing at a “scary pace”, Cai said.

A possible solution was to convert trawlermen to fish farmers, he said.

Some coastal provinces have established aquatic farms in fishing villages, producing a greater output than the annual catch in recent years.

This has raised hopes that China can meet demand for seafood without exhausting global fish stocks.

The downside of fish farms was the added pollution they contributed to coastal cities, plus a limited number of suitable locations.

This might lead the Chinese government to subsidise fish farms in more distant waters, such as in the South China Sea, Cai said.

Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk


BBC News

How China’s trawlers are emptying Guinea’s oceans

The wooden canoes of Guinea’s fishermen are dwarfed by Chinese trawlers

Chinese fishing vessels operate illegally off the coast of Guinea, depleting its fish population and destroying marine life. Despite the economic and social consequences of illegal fishing, the Guinean government has failed to police its waters because it doesn’t have money to operate surveillance equipment, as the BBC’s Tamasin Ford reports.

Abdoulaye Soumah looks out to sea as fishermen bring in the day’s catch. Their brightly coloured traditional wooden boats glide into Bonfi port in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, where men wait to load the fish into baskets.

“We used to get between $700 (£540) and $1,400 worth of fish a day,” says the 32-year-old fisherman.

“But now, because of the increase in illegal fishing, there are fewer fish,” he says angrily.

“The same catch will now get around $140 because there’s no fish in the zone we normally fish in.”

Abdoulaye Soumah:

Abdoulaye Soumah on his boat

“The next generation doesn’t stand a chance”

The UN estimates that illegal fishing strips the global economy of more than $23bn every year.

And the waters off West Africa have the highest levels of illegal catch in the world, according to the UK-based non-profit organisation, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF),

More than a third of all fish caught in the region is illegal, unreported or unregulated, it says.

“These illegal pirate fishing operators are in effect stealing from some of the poorest people on our planet to provide short-term profit to wealthy fishing operators,” says EJF head Steve Trent.

He explains how a mixture of poor governance, limited resources and corruption create a situation ripe for exploitation. And Guinea is one of the worst examples.

It is the only country in Africa banned from exporting fish to Europe; the world’s biggest market.

Levels of illegal fishing are just too high and the EU says the Guinean government “hasn’t shown the necessary commitment to reforms”.

The most prized fish in Asia

At the fish market in Conakry, Aboubacar Kaba, head of the Artisanal Fisheries Union, grabs a silver fish about the size of his forearm from the back of a refrigerator truck.

“This is the most prized fish in Asia; the yellow croaker,” he says, claiming this is what the illegal trawlers are after.

The yellow croaker

The yellow croaker has reportedly disappeared from Chinese waters

The fish is now classified as endangered and has reportedly disappeared from Chinese seas because of overfishing.

“In 2008 there were 14 Chinese trawlers in these waters,” he says. “We’re now in 2016 and there are close to 500 trawlers all searching for this species of fish.”

And, according to Greenpeace, many of these companies have a history of illegal fishing in the region.

Hundreds of incidents of illegal activity by Chinese trawlers have been documented in West Africa over the years.

Trawlers took advantage of Ebola

Illegal fishing in Guinea got even worse as the country was battling the deadly Ebola virus, according to a Greenpeace investigation.

“During the Ebola outbreak, the country focused all their resources and capacity to deal with Ebola,” says Ahmed Diame, the Africa Oceans campaigner at Greenpeace.

Map of Guinea

During a month-long mission at the end of 2014 while Ebola was ravaging the country, a Greenpeace ship spotted an illegal Chinese trawler once every two days.

“In this investigation we discovered that some Chinese vessels fishing in West Africa under-report their gross tonnage and this has many implications of course, including loss of revenue to the state,” says Mr Diame.

Most of the Chinese vessels are known as bottom trawlers; banned in some parts of the world because they are so destructive.

They scrape up everything from the bottom of the ocean, ripping up coral and oyster beds, taking with them everything in their path.

“Up to 90% of the catch can be thrown back into the sea often already dead,” according to Greenpeace.

It means fish stocks are rapidly disappearing from West African waters. But while Guinea managed to officially rid the country of Ebola in June, illegal trawlers are still being spotted.

“This is where we see them, late at night,” says Mr Soumah as he takes me into the artisanal fishing zone on his wooden motorised boat.

The area stretches 12 miles from the shore and is exclusively reserved for artisanal fishing on small boats like these.

Industrial fishing is forbidden in order to protect the fish stocks.

‘I’m scared’

The Environmental Justice Foundation has evidence, yet to be published, that proves illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is still going on in these waters.

Similarly, Greenpeace also started another investigation in January this year across Cape Verde, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

It will take three years, but the organisation hopes it will get a more detailed analysis of the situation.

Fishermen unloading their boats

Guinea’s fishermen say there is not enough fish left for them

The issue of the lack of resources couldn’t be made clearer as I visit Conakry’s Maritime Authority.

The rear admiral unlocks a door at the back of his office. Members of the navy and maritime surveillance team sit among impressive looking equipment.

This is where they monitor Guinea’s waters.

The problem, says the deputy commissioner, as he shows me some of the brand new kit delivered by the EU, is that they have never been able to use it.

The subscription to the satellite system that drives the equipment costs 10,000 euro ($11,000; £8,500) a year and they just do not have the money.

The government says it is trying but without resources, it is an uphill battle.


Illegal fishing operators are in effect stealing from some of the world’s poorest people

Guinea recently signed a treaty to crack down on illegal fishing but it is too early to say what effect it will have.

High hopes rest on Andre Loua, the new minister of fisheries, who was appointed earlier this year.

“Yes, I’m very scared if we don’t halt illegal fishing,” he says frankly.

“The direct consequences of illegal fishing is the destruction of fish stocks and that’s why the government has taken every opportunity to show it’s willing to fight this practice and we are going to keep going until we eradicate illegal fishing in this zone.”

But back on Mr Soumah’s boat at Bonfi port, these feel like empty words.

“The next generation doesn’t stand a chance,” he says bleakly. “Listen, our children survive on what we do.”

Illegal fishing is slowly destroying an already fragile economy here.

Mr Soumah thinks the future of his children is dire.

“Fishing enables us to educate our children, feed them and provide for their healthcare. So if the illegal fishing directly affects us as fishermen, what do you think the impact is on our children?”

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