Despite the fact that agriculture has been developed for many thousands of years, humanity is still forced to get some of the food it consumes from the wild. For example, a significant portion of people’s diet worldwide is comprised of fish from oceans and rivers. The chief consumer of fish and seafood nowadays is China. For example, in 2015 the Celestial Empire accounted for 35% of the world’s consumption of fish, and since that time this percentage has only increased.
In 2011, Chinese fishing boats, according to official data, harvested almost 70 million tons of fish. By 2016, that total catch increased by almost two times. Chinese fishermen not only catch fish for domestic consumption, but also to process in their factories and subsequently sell to Japan, the United States, and Europe. This means that China is not only a major consumer of fish and seafood, but a major exporter.
Recently, the quantity of fish and seafood in China’s territorial waters has decreased substantially. For instance, in 2016, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs recently officially declared that the supply of fish is running out in the East China Sea. There is one opinion that what has played a significant role in the depletion of Chinese resources is both the methods used to harvest them and the quantities that are harvested; many other countries view these as unlawful. Owing to this, China has been forced to start to impose restrictions on fishing activities in its territorial waters, including complete temporary bans on catching fish in places such as the East China Sea and important Chinese rivers: the Yellow River, Yangtze, etc.
Despite the reduction seen in the country’s own marine resources, Chinese leadership delivered a directive to increase the scope of fish and seafood production. That is why in recent years China has paid particular attention to developing its distant-water fishing fleet, which performs fishing activity in various parts of the World Ocean, and sometimes even extremely far from the shores of Celestial Empire itself – for example, off the coasts of Africa, South America, and throughout Oceania.
Many companies are involved in fishing outside the boundaries of Chinese territorial waters, and the largest one is the government-owned China National Fisheries. There are also quite a few private Chinese companies, and they also receive support from the Chinese authorities. One example is how both government-run and private companies receive large-scale subsidies from the Chinese government to help them procure fuel.
Thanks to this, the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet harvests fish continuously year-round. Its makeup includes thousands of refrigerated cargo vessels and floating fish processing factories, which help noticeably accelerate the pace of harvesting marine resources. The numerous Chinese fish processing plants in Africa also assist the process; Chinese fishing vessels working in African waters can bring their catches there without having to waste time going back to China.
According to official data, the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet is comprised of 17,000 vessels, even though reports can be seen in media outlets that the actual number is much larger, and many of its vessels are either not officially registered or sail under the flags of other countries.
Chinese successes are not appreciated by everybody. One opinion exists that the activities performed by the Chinese fishing fleet pose a threat to the World Ocean. The Celestial Empire is being pounded by disapproval coming from other countries and international organizations, and chiefly ones in the West.
Greenpeace accuses China of “predatory” fishing in quantities that are beyond the Chinese population’s nutritional needs, and on the whole just exceed any sensible limits. China is also being accused of the fact that, as it has done in its own waters before, its fishermen use outdated, prohibited fishing methods in international waters that not only harm the fish supply itself, but the entire marine ecosystem: bottom trawling, explosives, and toxic substances.
In support of their claims about the destructive activities performed by Chinese fishermen, environmentalists often cite examples of how fish resources are used irrationally. What especially arouses their indignation is when fishermen cut off the fins of a shark and then throw the shark itself out in the sea to die. A kilogram of shark fins, especially those of rare species, can cost up to 20,000 USD on the Chinese market. Shark fins are considered an elite delicacy in China, and are also used in traditional Chinese medicine, so this huge demand is the reason that many shark species are approaching the brink of extinction. It is the demand for fish and seafood, no matter how it is obtained, that causes the fishermen to commit these violations.
Certain countries do not like the fact that the Chinese are fishing so close to their territorial waters, or sometimes even inside their boundaries, without having the appropriate licenses. Over the past few years, media outlets have reported many times on clashes between Chinese fishermen and the coast guards of various countries such as Argentina, Guinea, Taiwan, Ecuador, etc. However, Chinese fishermen unflinchingly endure the attacks on them by foreign security forces. One incident even came to light when in March 2020 Chinese fishermen went on the attack themselves against vessels run by the Taiwanese coast guard, and attempted to ram them.
In August 2020, media reported that hundreds of Chinese ships were discovered near the boundaries of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone, in the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands, which along with their coastal waters are a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. According to environmental protection organizations, this caused a real threat to loom over the biosphere reserve. The Ecuadorian authorities have stated that they intend to protect the Galapagos Islands, but for now no serious action has been reported. There is also no information on any successes achieved by the UN, environmental protection organizations, or the West in general.
This does not come as a surprise: against the backdrop of accusations that China is ruining the planet’s marine treasures, that Chinese ships, dragging bottom trawls along the ocean floor, are destroying the marine ecosystem for years to come, and illegally invading the waters of other countries, both the European Union, which is considered the world’s stronghold of the fight for the environment, and the United States, where green parties are also strong, continue to buy fish and seafood from China, thereby creating the very demand that pushes the PRC to increase its scope of fishing.
This is quite in keeping with the spirit that prevails in the Western world: transferring “dirty” production to “third-world” countries and then accusing them of polluting the environment to gratify their “green groups”. The same thing can evidently be observed with fishing. The European Union and the United States produce a lot of fish and seafood, but to provide themselves with the complete scope of these resources they would have to build up their own fishing fleets – and provide its sailors with wages that correspond to levels in the Western world – or develop the fish farming industries inside their own borders. It is much less expensive to buy up fish and seafood from China to make up for the shortfall, where fishermen make wages that are incomparably smaller, and then accuse China of exhausting natural resources.
As long as countries that have access to the sea, and are able to provide themselves with the amount of fish that they need on their own, keep buying cheap fish from China because it economically benefits them, and as long as fish is not only a food product for the Chinese but also an export item for Chinese companies, then the Chinese fishing fleet will keep harvesting it in unrestricted quantities. The Chinese point of view can be understood: in the past, they lived in poverty for way too long, and they will do anything to preserve the standard of living that they have managed to attain in the beginning of the 21st century. Therefore, persuasion, threats, and sanctions will not work on them as long as the factors of demand and income are involved. The depletion of marine resources is a global problem, and one that all countries around the planet must work on together; and, as long as all the culpability is shifted onto the PRC, it will not be resolved.
Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.