How China’s fishers can help tackle ocean litter

Better incentives and awareness can encourage fishers to prevent waste entering the ocean and collect what is already there

Fishermen sort out valuable fish, shrimps and trash fish from garbage, seaweed and broken fishing net parts in Shidao, Shandong, China.

Fishers in Shandong province sort fish and shrimps from debris caught in a fishing net. They often need to pick out their catch from plastic waste, wooden debris and abandoned fishing gear. (Image © Zhu Li / Greenpeace)

In recent years, summer typhoons have brought tonnes of ocean litter onto Chinese shores. Kilometres of beaches have turned white in an embarrassing reminder of where our waste ends up. Coastal managers often respond by organising beach clean-up events for locals; after all, we have all contributed to ocean litter.

Clean-up efforts have also moved out onto open water, with fishers in Zhejiang and Fujian collecting ocean litter with the support of government or grassroots groups.

Meanwhile, China is starting to take ocean litter seriously at the top policy level. In August, at a press conference of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), Zhang Zhifeng, deputy head of its Department of Marine Ecology and Environment, said the ministry is including ocean litter in action plans for tackling pollution. Dealing with the issue is to be a key task for the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) for the Marine Environment, which the MEE is in charge of drafting.

These measures can be traced back to March 2018, when the environmental duties of what was then the State Oceanic Administration were handed to the MEE. This put responsibilities for environmental protection on land and at sea under one roof for the first time. The following year, the National Congress called for “integrated governance of land and sea”, meaning that ongoing action on waste prevention and remediation on land would expand to cover the ocean.

China, plastic waste, fishers, Zhoushan
Fishers in the Chinese port city of Zhoushan bring back plastic bottles from a fishing trip. More are now being encouraged to play an active role in managing ocean waste by not only bringing their own rubbish back to shore, but also collecting what’s already in the water. (Image: Hu Songsu / Golden Fisher Women)

On land, China’s environmental governance has relied on strong administrative measures. The ocean brings its own challenges. Traditional methods won’t work on vast and borderless expanses of water and seabed. Thus, fishers themselves have an important role to play in managing ocean litter.

At the end of 2019, China had over 10 million people working in the fishing sector on about 731,200 fishing vessels, according to the 2020 China Fishing Yearbook.

Once it was believed the ocean was effectively infinite and could absorb anything thrown at it, and so fishers habitually threw waste overboard. Those old ideas have had to change. Now, fishers can not only avoid discarding waste in the ocean but also help retrieve what is already there.

Waste sorting at sea

Hu Songsu has been encouraging local fishers to bring as much waste back to shore as they can. She is the head of Golden Fisher Women, an association dealing with waste in Changtu township. Hu told China Dialogue that 44 of the township’s 105 fishing boats are now taking part.

On a fishing boat, “household” waste mostly means batteries and plastic bottles. Hu estimates the township’s fishing boats get through 30,000-40,000 D-type batteries every year. In the past, those were simply thrown overboard once exhausted.

A fisher in the port city of Zhoushan brings a basket of used batteries ashore. Batteries and plastic water bottles are common types of waste on a fishing boat. In the past, both were thrown overboard once used. (Image: Hu Songsu / Golden Fisher Women)

“Us fishers all say we’re not fishing in water anymore, we’re fishing in litter.” Hu told China Dialogue the nets bring up plastic, wood, wire and old fishing gear, sometimes causing nets to tear.

The Golden Fisher Women have in part been responding to government calls for litter to be recovered from the ocean. Early last year, the Zhejiang county of Daishan, where Changtu township is located, issued “recyclable” and “other” waste bins to most fishing vessels. But space is limited on board, so Hu’s group used recovered nets to make bags for waste storage.

Meanwhile, in the Fujian township of Xiangzhi, the NGO Xiangzhi Beautiful Coast Volunteers launched a “No Litter at Sea” campaign last year, with support from the local environmental bureau and township government.

The couple who started the group have been collecting litter from local beaches since 2014, teaming up with over 300 other volunteers. Now they have turned their attention to the sea. The group runs a comprehensive waste-handling system, according to media reports. Volunteers collect waste at the port and pass it on to a third party for sorting and disposal, sometimes with help from government waste-disposal agencies.

A fisher in Hainan transports a new waste bin to his boat. The bins have recycling instructions on them, and have been distributed to fishers are part of a campaign – one of several across China – to encourage them to sort their waste and bring it back to shore. (Image: Tao Xing / ChinaBlue Sustainability Institute)

So far, such examples are few and far between. He Li of Zhoushan in Zhejiang is founder of the Thousand Island Environmental Protection Centre. His surveys on nearby islands have found that while local governments say they want to provide waste bins on all boats, that is all they are doing; there is no monitoring to ensure crews then sort waste properly.

A number of interviewees told China Dialogue that as fishing crews are already engaged in exhausting work, sorting waste may be a troublesome extra job they feel they don’t have time for. Despite calls from governments at central to local levels for littering at sea to stop, there are so far no feasible monitoring methods.

And while solid waste is relatively easy to bring back to shore, that isn’t true for wastewater and oily water. Cai Pengze, party secretary of the Xiangzhi Beautiful Coast Volunteers standing committee, told China Dialogue that boats working with the group retain waste oil but not wastewater. National standards and laws don’t require the smaller vessels that make up the bulk of China’s fishing fleet to have wastewater-handling systems.

In 2019, the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences’ Fishery Machinery and Instrument Research Institute carried out a study of wastewater handling on Chinese fishing vessels. Only 13 of a sample of 123 vessels had wastewater-handling equipment installed, and some of those hardly ever used it.

Most of the 11 ports surveyed did not have facilities to accept and dispose of vessels’ wastewater. The researchers warned that unrestricted discharges of wastewater from fishing boats represents a huge risk to the marine environment.

Fujian fishers, waster engine oil, China
Fishers at a port in Fujian deal with waste engine oil. While some boats do bring back their used oil, very few have, or use, equipment to handle wastewater. (Image: Cai Jiajian / Xiangzhi Beautiful Coast Volunteers)

Discarded fishing gear: when litter kills

Discarded fishing gear may be easier to keep an eye on. This form of plastic pollution can float in the ocean for years like an evil spirit, trapping marine life, and earning the name “ghost gear”.

Research has found that ghost gear accounts for up to 10% of all litter entering the oceans. That might not seem a lot, but it has severe consequences for sea creatures.

Most gear used by Chinese fishers is made by unknown manufacturers or assembled by fishers themselves. There is no data on how much is produced or discarded each year. To help, the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences’ East China Sea Fisheries Research Institute is working on a labelling and traceability system for fishing gear.

Zhang Yu, an assistant researcher on the project, told China Dialogue the system would allow for full lifespan monitoring of fishing gear and could encourage the recycling of old gear. Purchased gear would have a label attached linked to the vessel’s fishing licence. At ports, officials could retrieve all the gear’s registration information, such as manufacturer and user, by checking that label. If fitted with a satellite tracking device, they could even monitor its position in real time. And if the gear is discarded, its original purchaser could be identified using the label.

ghost nets in pacific ocean
Fishing nets abandoned at sea are known as “ghost gear” and represent a grave threat to marine animals. This net has a tracking device (white with a blue cord) fixed to it, making it possible to find and remove it from the water. (Image © Justin Hofman / Greenpeace)

This sounds fantastic, but real challenges remain: “There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese fishing vessels, even considering only those properly registered,” said Zhang. “You would need to issue 100 million to 200 million labels every year, which is a huge amount of work.”

In addition, a recycling system for fishing gear will only work if the fishers themselves are actively involved. But tagged standards-compliant gear is bound to be more expensive than low-quality equivalents. Zhang said the government may need to offer subsidies to encourage fishers to participate.

Meanwhile, back on land…

If fishers start bringing all the waste they produce and also potentially collect, including fishing gear, back to port, what happens next?

In 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a notice on preventing pollution at fishing ports. Key to this was adding facilities to accept and transport waste from vessels.

10 million
people are employed in China’s fishing sector

The document provided guidance and assessment standards for pilot projects looking to handle wastewater, oily water and solid waste. In response, local governments in Fujian and Zhejiang issued their own instructions. For example, the district of Fengze in Quanzhou, Fujian, has said that by the end of 2023 all first- and second-tier ports (ie those unloading over 20,000 tonnes a year) will have depots accepting “fishery waste”, which includes from aquaculture. By the end of 2025, facilities for handling that waste will be linked up with municipal waste-disposal systems, and a system for recycling fishing gear will be starting to take shape.

If the challenge at sea is participation and monitoring, the challenge on land is cost. Zhang Yu told China Dialogue that fishing vessels have always brought back some old fishing gear, as there has been a market for steel cable, rope and nets, which can be cleaned up and reused, or recycled for raw materials. Unfortunately, the recycling methods used in China are themselves polluting. “The problem is that, anywhere in the world, it costs more to recycle fishing gear than ordinary waste if it’s done in an environmentally friendly way,” Zhang explained. He thinks the government will need to put policies in place to support recycling of fishing gear to help the sector grow.

Chinese Fishermen and workers scavenge for wood amongst broken and discarded plastic and styrofoam bricks
Discarded polystyrene in a fishing harbour in Sanya, Hainan. Polystyrene packaging and floatation devices are widely used in aquaculture in China. (Image: Olli Geibel / Alamy)

The two main sea-based sources of litter are shipping and fisheries. These sectors are managed by separate authorities, as Xu Nan, a board member for the Shanghai Rendu Ocean NPO Development Centre and a senior zero-carbon economy and green finance consultant, explained to China Dialogue. Port contracts signed by shipping firms usually include waste handling, and there are established service providers and procedures in place. But oversight of litter from fisheries is harder. There are more actors of varying sizes, spread over a wider area, and fishing gear breaks down more easily. “The biggest problem with fishery litter is polystyrene. It’s lightweight, bulky, or highly fragmented, and hard to collect,” Xu said.

During her research, Xu has found that the cost of collecting and transporting marine plastics is higher than for plastics on land, and the constant exposure to sun and saltwater limits future uses. The market, therefore, is not keen. “But collecting and recycling marine plastics has significant positive impacts for the marine environment, including the prevention and control of microplastics. Therefore new market-based approaches should be encouraged to provide premiums for marine plastics.” Xu says.

Chinese primary school students pick up the floating plastic pollution
Chinese primary school students pick up litter from a beach in Jiangsu province. There is growing public awareness in China of the problem of ocean waste, and beach clean ups like this are increasingly common. (Image: Alamy)

Li Jingsong, policy director of the ChinaBlue Sustainability Institute, a marine environmental group, said that the significance of the initiatives undertaken by Golden Fisher Women and the Thousand Island Environmental Development Centre is in raising awareness among the fishing community. “The fishers are working at sea, where nobody is monitoring them, so administrative measures don’t work well, and it’s hard to track down responsible parties. Material rewards come with moral risks, and once those rewards are reduced or stopped, behaviours may change back,” he said.

Meanwhile, some boats are pulling litter out of their fishing nets and bringing it back to shore.

In 2021, a trial of this practice got underway at the fishing port of Changhua, Hainan. The project is headed up by the Hainan Environmental Sciences Institute, with support from the local government.

“Advocacy and practice like this strengthens the link between fishers’ interests and the environment,” Li said. “Looking forward, there’s big potential to reduce production of some forms of litter, such as ghost fishing gear, [which] has an outsized and long-lasting ecological impact. The problem is most likely to be solved by changing fishers’ behaviour.”