A study published by the European Parliament has provided information on China’s fleet and catches, the activities of the distant-water Chinese fishing fleets and China’s role in fish trade.
The study shows that China massively under-reports its distant-water fleets’ catches, particularly in Africa, the region where they extract the largest catch: ‘While it is in China's own long-term interest to have a firm handle on its domestic fisheries, it is not necessarily in its interest for the magnitude of its distant-water catch to become visible’, argue the authors.
The study notes that China has significantly improved its track record as regards cooperation in recent years, particularly within the regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). However, China exhibits slower progress in the adoption of international agreements, the main challenges being its frequent opposition to any changes in rules on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.
The nature of China’s fisheries agreements varies from state-to-state bilateral agreements to non-governmental arrangements between parastatal/public-private partnerships and third countries. In any case, the study shows that China’s fisheries agreements are characterised by lack of transparency. It also evokes EU stakeholders' concerns over China’s approach to secure fisheries agreements, essentially based on offering the third party whatever is requested to secure their supply. The consequences of this for the EU are increasing difficulties in negotiating fisheries agreements with those countries that can now count on the possibility of securing an easy deal with China should they consider the EU’s conditions to be too demanding.
The study includes some recommendations, insisting for example that the European Parliament should encourage all developing countries, or at least Europe’s ACP partners, to realise that it is in the interest of their countries and societies to make public all existing and future agreements with China and all other distant-water fishing countries, similar to the current disclosure practices of EU fishing agreements: ‘This may encourage a more virtuous competition with terms more favourable to developing countries’. The Parliament should also encourage full disclosure about real beneficial ownership of distant-water fleets, ‘as the present maze and complexity of re-flagged vessels, joint ventures and flags of convenience tend to obscure and mask fishing operations to the extent that tracking of real trends and policy interventions become impossible’.
In the long term ACP countries will benefit from signing access agreements with distant-water fleets only if the operations of these fleets do not contribute to depreciating ACP natural resources capital, through over-exploitation and ecosystems destruction. The financial contribution or the investments provided by the distant-water fishing nation will only have positive impacts if that first condition, of sustainable exploitation, is met. The current opacity of most fishing operations in ACP countries – reflagging, joint ventures, chartering, most fishing agreements, etc – make it difficult for an ACP country to appreciate the long-term costs and benefits of these operations, and to design and implement appropriate policies for sustainable fisheries development. Gathering and disclosing information on all fishing operations is the first step in ensuring that any distant-water fishing operation in ACP waters will draw long-term benefits. Some ACP countries are taking such step by, for example, publishing regularly updated lists of licensed vessels.