Editor’s note: This is the second part of an ongoing editorial series that examines the forces transforming China’s domestic fishing industry. You can read part one here.
It is winter in Zhoushan village on the East China Sea, one of the country’s most productive fishing grounds. Fisherman Wei Qiyong is worrying about where to cast his nets. Fish swim deeply in these cold waters so you must choose your spot carefully if you want to catch the right fish. But Wei is struggling to find a place. There are too many boats on the water.
“Sometimes you can’t even find space to put your net down,” he complains.
Wei, 40, has been fishing for 22 years. In that time he has seen the fishing industry boom as vessel numbers have expanded.
On the seas, fishermen from different ports squabble over the best spots. It isn’t uncommon, Wei says, for fights to break out. His nets were once slashed in waters off Shandong province, north of Zhoushan.
“I daren’t go back there, even if I knew that was where the fish were,” he says.
Wei and his wife now spend a lot of their time running a guesthouse by the sea. Like many other fishermen in town, he sees the fishing industry shrinking and is looking for a new livelihood.
Expansion of the fishing industry over the past 30 years has exacted a toll on China’s fisheries. In response, the central authorities are advocating less intensive fishing, with closed seasons to allow fisheries to recover. Fishing vessel numbers have been curbed in some areas but, on the whole, the size of vessels continues to increase, meaning fishing capacity has reached new highs.
According to the China fishing industry yearbook, at the end of 2016 the country had over 260,000 fishing vessels with a total engine power of over 10,000 kilowatts. This yielded a catch of 13.28 million tonnes from coastal waters, exceeding the recommended level of 8 to 9 million tonnes suggested by the Ministry of Agriculture as sustainable.
China’s policy to subsidise its fishing fleet has fuelled its rapid expansion. In 2006, after high oil prices made diesel significantly more expensive, China started providing fuel subsidies to struggling fishermen, depending on the size of their vessel and time spent at sea.
Research published in the journal Marine Policy by Tabitha Grace Mallory, a fisheries expert with the National Bureau of Asian Research, calculated the size of China’s fuel subsidies (for both coastal and deep water fishing vessels) between 2006 and 2013. She found subsidies grew from 3.1 billion yuan (US$500 million) to 38.1 billion yuan (US$6 billion) over the eight-year period, a 1,200% increase. A large part of these subsidies went to coastal fishermen such as Wei Qiyong.
The study also found that subsidies hampered the development of sustainable fishing. For comparison, China’s entire central government budget for energy-saving and environmental protection in 2013 was 9.37 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion).
The data for 2012 and 2013 is not disaggregated into vessel types.
The policy changed in 2015, when the Ministry of Finance said publicly that the existing arrangement had “distorted pricing signals” and clashed with efforts to reduce fishing capacity and move fishermen into other work. It made a commitment to reduce subsidies to 40% of 2014 levels by 2019.
There were both domestic and international reasons for this change of tack. At home, greater emphasis on the idea of an ecological civilisation and the protection of fisheries, as well as the huge financial cost of the subsidies exerted pressure. Internationally, China committed to sustained reform of its fishing fuel subsidies by 2030, as part of efforts to reduce fossil fuel subsidies under the G20 framework.
The ‘post-subsidy’ fishing industry
The policy change was soon reflected in Wei Qiyong’s accounts.
In 2016 he received 110,000 yuan (US$17,400) in fuel subsidies, 200,000 yuan (US$32,000) less than the previous year. His 350 horsepower vessel brings in about 200,000 yuan a year. Crew wages account for 100,000 yuan (US$16,000), fuel another 30,000-40,000 (US$4,700-6,300), while buying and repairing fishing gear costs about 30,000 yuan. That leaves less than 30,000 yuan for Wei and his family, annually.
Wei bought his boat in 2011 with a loan of over one million yuan (US$150,000). Since then he has only paid off the interest. His only source of disposable income for the entire year is the fuel subsidy. The reductions have put him under even more financial pressure.
“I’ve got to earn all that back by catching more fish,” he says.
There are 17 stow net boats working from his home village of Liangzhi on the Zhoushan island of Qushan, less than half the number there when the industry was flourishing. All the captains agree that the subsidy cuts have been too harsh.
Stow net fishing is commonly used by boats on the island, where boats are anchored out at sea and nets spread from their side. The tide brings the fish. Regulation nets have mesh large enough to allow young fish to escape. Zhejiang, the province Zhoushan is in, goes further by banning the sale of fish below a certain size. But since winter arrived the captains have been secretly adding a second net, with a mesh size of only a few millimetres, meaning small fish get caught.
“We know we’re damaging the fisheries, but if we stuck to the rules we’d make a loss each trip,” explained Wei.
“There’s no other choice, the small fish are still worth money, they can be made into fishmeal. So if we see a trip is going to make a loss we use that net to make back labour costs.”
If we stuck to the rules we’d make a loss each trip
The use of illegal nets is an open secret among the fishermen. Nobody is willing to risk making a loss, even if they are convinced of the benefits of protecting the fisheries.
In the autumn of 2017, catches in the first two months of the fishing season were better than most years, to the relief of the captains. Many believed they had the longer closed season to thank.
“The first month they made 500,000 each time going out,” laughed one crew member, “of course, the skippers were happy.” China coordinated closed seasons across its fisheries for the first time in 2017, with the majority of boats in the East China Sea tied up for four and half months, a month longer than usual.
But that brief bounty was a setback for the government’s plan to reduce boat numbers.
Chen Ming, deputy township chief, met with fishermen in his office to hear their complaints about the extended closed season and subsidy cuts. Smaller vessels faced bankruptcy. Chen explained that the township had formed a special working group to find new work for the fishermen onshore. There are 842 boats working from Qushan, 119 less than a year ago. But seeing the bigger catches, some fishermen have been inspired to buy boats and get out to sea. And while fishing rules don’t allow fishermen to transfer licenses and other permits, it’s hard to prevent a trade going on.
“I think about half of them will go back to fishing,” Chen said regretfully. Reducing coastal fishing, like the tide, has its ups and downs.
Back on dry land
For generations, the villagers of the island of Qushan have made their living by fishing. For hundreds of years people have come to the coast to catch seasonal fish populations, gradually settling on the islands of the Zhoushan archipelago and now forming China’s biggest seafood market.
The Yangtze and Qiantang rivers fill these waters with rich organic matter, while the monsoon and seasonal atmospheric currents meet here bringing with them countless numbers of fish. Islanders recall being able to scoop fish large and small out of the water while walking on the beach. But now declining fishery stocks are changing the nature of the place, and fishing is decreasing in popularity.
Liangzhi has a broad beach of soft sand, nestled between its hills. The beach enjoyed a sudden online popularity in 2016, to the delight of locals: a horde of tourists turned up, with cars blocking the streets and queuing for miles.
The beach lies on the north coast of the island. The homes here traditionally face inwards, away from the wind. But now everyone’s having new windows put in for the sea view. The more affluent residents are simply knocking down their homes to rebuild. A wave of new guesthouses has opened, supporting the government’s aim of getting fishermen into new onshore jobs. Chen Ridong, deputy Party secretary for the village, said that while it used to be the case that everyone here fished, fishing hasn’t been so profitable the last decade. Young folk are opting to leave and look for work elsewhere, and as their elders retire the number of working boats is falling. In particular, those who were in the position to set up guesthouses took the opportunity to come ashore last year.
And it’s not a chance Wei Qiyong wants to miss. Last year he and his wife built a guesthouse on a piece of unused land. From the balcony on the third floor you can look north over the rooftops to Liangzhi’s main attraction, its beach, while to the back you can see a wind turbine far off on the hilltop.
Summer happens to be both the tourist season and the closed season for fishing, and so Wei and his wife, along with a few relatives, are able to look after their guests properly. But the island is much quieter once the early October National Day holiday passes and the long winter sets in. Chen Ridong says that if they could get tourists to the island in winter there’d be a good living for everyone but they haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
Zhou Wei, oceans campaigner with environmental group Greenpeace, thinks the cut in fuel subsidies sends a positive signal and will help control the size of the fishing fleet. But the fisherman have long relied on the subsidies, and protecting their livelihoods is a major challenge.
Wei Qiyong says he’s determined to make sure his son chooses another career path.
“There’ll always be more company jobs,” he said. But as for himself, he didn’t get much education and doesn’t feel he has other choices. Even if the subsidies are cut again, he’ll still be heading out to sea.
“What am I going to do on shore? There’s nothing there I can do.”