China cracks down on illegal distant water fishing

The release of a list of blacklisted vessels points to the government's hardening line on DWF
<p>A crew member of the USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC 39) stands lookout during a transfer of custody of the detained fishing vessel Run Da in the Sea of Japan, June 21, 2018. (Image: <a href="">US Coast Guard</a>)</p>

A crew member of the USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC 39) stands lookout during a transfer of custody of the detained fishing vessel Run Da in the Sea of Japan, June 21, 2018. (Image: US Coast Guard)

China’s fishery authorities have introduced hard-hitting punishments for overfishing and illegal fishing by the country’s distant water fishing (DWF) vessels.

Chinese DWF vessels have been operating in the high seas or in other countries’ exclusive economic zones for 30 years, but the authorities have taken a low-key approach to acts of wrongdoing. That changed in February this year when the Ministry of Agriculture published, for the first time, a list of DWF companies and vessels it had penalised in 2017.

Typical punishments included the loss of a year’s fuel subsidies – vital for the profitability of many boats – cancellation of fishing licenses, and fishing bans of up to five years for named captains and crew members.

The list included the vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, which was caught in Ecuador’s Galapagos Marine Reserve in August 2017. In its hull were almost 300 tonnes of fish on board, including more than 6,600 sharks and endangered species such as hammerheads. Twenty crew members received prison sentences of between one and four years.

Surprise shake-up

Distant water fishing companies and crews were not expecting the changes.

In December 2017, the government published plans to control the size of the DWF sector and increase regulation over the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020). The Ministry of Agriculture then quickly followed up in the same month by announcing the creation of a blacklist system, publishing its first list two months later. Captains and company bosses on the list are banned from working in the fishing industry.

Why the sudden crackdown? At the time, Yu Kangzhen, deputy agriculture minister, said “some DWF companies are small and weak, with poor management, little safety awareness and continuing breaches of overseas regulations”.

Liu Bolei, oceans campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, says repeated breaches by DWF vessels have put the ministry under pressure, which prompted a more hands-on approach.

USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC 39) and People's Republic of China Coast Guard crew members uncover an approximately 5.6-mile drift net onboard the fishing vessel Run Da during a joint boarding of the vessel in the North Pacific Ocean, 860 miles east of Hokkaido, Japan, June 16, 2018.
The Coast Guard uncover an illegal 5.6-mile drift net onboard the fishing vessel the Run Da (Image: U.S. Coast Guard )

Since 2003, regulations have included provisions for banning offenders from the industry, but bans have never been made public – before now. Nobody knew if breaches were punished, or how.

Removal of the year’s fuel subsidies is an effective punishment (providing half the revenue of some companies), but falls short of a ban.

“A captain who loses his license will, if he wants to be a captain again, have to wait five years and then go through all the tests again, from the bottom. Realistically they’ll never get their old position back,” says Tang Jianye, professor of international fisheries law and policy at Shanghai Ocean University. 

Rapid growth, poor regulation

Punishing the culprits alone won’t solve China’s DWF industry’s problems. The sector has expanded over the past three decades to become the world’s largest. But regulation and professionalism have not kept pace with the sector’s explosive growth.

In particular, there were many new, small entrants to the DWF sector during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2010-2015).

“As [the new entrants] hadn’t worked in the sector before, there was an increase in breaches of regulations,” says Tang Jianye. “They’ve learned idea [of the rules], but nothing concrete,” he adds.

Fishing activity by Chinese vessels between 2012 and 2018 (Source: Global Fishing Watch)
Fishing activity by Chinese vessels between 2012 and 2018 (Source map: Global Fishing Watch). Credit: chinadialogue

To tackle this, Shanghai Ocean University and the China DWF Association provided compliance training to fishing company managers last September, explained the rules of regional fishery bodies and national laws in other jurisdictions.

Weak global enforcement

The problem is compounded by the limited enforcement capabilities of nations where China’s DWF vessels operate, which leads to complacency among fishermen.

For example, over half of China’s almost 2,900 DWF vessels pay fees to fish in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) – areas outside national waters but where a nation has exclusive resource rights.

The secure access to another country’s EEZ, typically China will enter into an agreement with the host nation, which itemises its fishery stocks, permissible catches and regulations. China then provides data on fishing vessels and pays a fee.

Some nations are unable to assess fishery stocks or set catch quotas, however, fishing still takes place as long as the fees are paid. Other countries lack the capacity to effectively enforce regulations.

Layout of six regional overseas inspection points, as detailed by MARA. (Credit: China Policy report ‘Distant water fishing: turning the tide’)

Fish are not restricted by national boundaries so vessels commonly fish in the waters of countries that have the weakest regulation.

China’s DWF fleet is active in the EEZs of over 40 nations. Regulatory weak spots and poor enforcement encourage illegal behaviour.

Professor Tang says agreements are likely to become more robust as more countries adopt similar language to the EU’s 2013 Common Fisheries Policy. It emphasises “the best available scientific advice and relevant information exchange, ensuring a sustainable exploitation of the marine biological resources”, and “transparency”, contributing to “the establishment of a high quality governance framework to ensure, in particular, efficient data collection, monitoring, control and surveillance measures”.

Without fuel subsidies many DWF companies would be loss-making

Cutting fuel subsidies

Controlling the behaviour of Chinese vessels, and the fishing capacity of the fleet, is crucial to limiting illegal fishing globally.

China’s DWF sector is still growing: its 2016 catch of 1.9 million tonnes was up 78% on 2010.

The government intends to restrict the size of the DFW fleet to 3,000 boats by 2020, yet the catch is still set to rise to 2.3 million tonnes. Such growth in catch size is supported by generous state subsidies. These date back to 2006 when rising fuel prices prompted the government to subsidise fuel for fishing vessels, partly to ensure adequate catches.

Between 2006 and 2014, the cost of fuel subsidies rocketed from 281 million yuan (about US$41 million) to 4.2 billion yuan (about US$600 million). Without fuel subsidies many DWF companies would be loss-making.

China started to cut subsidy levels in 2016, but in 2018 they still stood at 3.6 billion yuan (about US$520 million).

Ryan Michael Penney, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Stanford University and maritime policy analyst at ChinaPolicy who is researching China’s maritime industry, predicts deeper cuts.

“I expect to see China continue to become more flexible in discussions on fishery fuel subsidies, which remains one of the biggest issues for regulating DWF industry production,” he says

Better dockside checks

Another regulatory approach is to improve the management and tracking of vessels and their catches when they reach port.

The ten fishing port clusters China is building
The ten fishing port clusters China is building (Image: China Policy)

China unveiled a plan this year to build 10 fishing port clusters with facilities to enable better data collection on catches.

The upgrades, which will take place between 2018 and 2025, will help prevent illegal catches reaching the market.

According to Penney, there is a severe lack of port checks so the new facilities should make a difference.

“China has not yet joined the key Port States Measures Agreement, and does not currently have the capacity to perform the inspections it calls for, but I expect to see them move toward joining as they develop the capacity,” he says.

The Port States Measures Agreement is a binding international agreement targeting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and applies to any vessel requesting access to host nation ports. There are currently 55 signatories* to the agreement, including the United States, Japan and Korea.

Penney says that if China wants to have more of a say on DWF then it should look to strengthen domestic legislation and align itself with international industry practices.

*Update: As of November 2019, there are 62 party states (plus the European Union) to the Port States Measures Agreement

With thanks to China Policy, authors of the report ‘Distant water fishing: turning the tide’