A new study highlights that China has now become a major distant-water fishing nation. At first, China lacked the specialised vessels and infrastructure required for distant-water fishing, simply exporting its coastal fleet, mainly bottom trawlers, to foreign countries’ waters. Recently, however, China has developed a fleet of specialised vessels (bottom trawlers, purse seiners, longliners). These are linked to mother ships that deliver their catch to freezing and processing facilities, supplying local and international as well as its domestic markets.
“Unfortunately,” comment the authors, “what did not improve in the transition to the 21st century is the tendency towards secrecy in fisheries data and the near complete disregard for public accountability of the use of public resources.” Access agreements between China or Chinese companies and third countries are not publicly available, and therefore the catches of the Chinese distant-water fleets go almost completely unreported.
On the basis of non-official sources, the authors have ‘reconstructed’ the catch data, to obtain a more accurate estimate of the Chinese distant-water fleets’ catches.
According to the researchers, China’s distant-water fleet comprises 3,400 vessels fishing in 37 countries. Chinese fleets catch an estimated 4.6 million tonnes per year outside their domestic waters, which is roughly 10 times what is reported by China to the FAO. The Chinese distant-water fleets extract their largest catches from African waters – approximately 3.1 million tonnes per year, caught by about 400 trawlers.
The authors recommend that the FAO should insist on proper reporting of catches from China, both domestic and distant water. “Because this may not be achievable quickly,” the EU should encourage research on China’s oceanic affairs with emphasis on fisheries. “However, such studies would have to be conducted as part of broader international studies, because the practices of the Chinese distant-water fleets do not differ much from those of other countries in East Asia and Europe that also deploy distant-water fleets... Otherwise, the necessary dialogue with Chinese authorities and with Chinese scientists would be burdened by the suspicion that China is being singled out for practices that are, unfortunately, widespread in distant-water fisheries.”
Making all access agreements between distant-water fishing countries – or companies – and coastal countries publicly available, and generally better documenting the activities and catches of distant-water fleets, is something that would greatly benefit ACP countries where these fleets operate. It would help them analyse the costs and benefits of these operations, and provide the necessary information to move towards the harmonisation of access conditions for the distant-water fleets, in line with sustainable fisheries requirements. At the last FAO Committee on Fisheries, a proposal was made to the FAO by the EU to undertake a global study on fisheries agreements. This proposal – which was not supported by other FAO members at the time – should be given due consideration by ACP countries in the context of this discussion.