icon/64x64/fisheriesCreated with Sketch. Fisheries

Podcast: The history of overfishing in China

Episode two of '1986' by Sustainable Asia explores the crisis that has led to a 10-year fishing ban on the Yangtze

The history of overfishing in China

In the land of “fish and rice”, overfishing has become a major problem. In the Yangtze River, fish populations are less than 5% what they were in the 1950s, with many species facing extinction.

The historical background to this is China’s 1986 Fisheries Law, which privatised fishing vessels. The mechanisation of fishing equipment and the harmful policy of fuel subsidies for fishers have also had significant impacts on fish stocks. What are the Chinese authorities doing to break the cycle of overfishing and promote sustainability in the sector?


  • Cao Ling, Shanghai Jiao Tong University
  • Wang Yamin, Shandong Ocean University
  • John Mimikakis, Environmental Defense Fund
  • hou Wei, Greenpeace China


Marcy Trent Long: Hi! My name is Marcy Trent Long. Welcome to Sustainable Asia. 1986 is made in collaboration with chinadialogue. It’s a four-part podcast series about China, oceans and fish.

This is episode two of 1986 – a story of how China is breaking the cycle of overfishing that was unleashed with the passage of the 1986 Fisheries Law during their reform and opening period.

Previously on episode one…

Margot Stiles: Over time as we’ve had more people and we have greater technology to be able to extract fish from the ocean, we’re better and better at taking those fish, and we start to run out.

Yvonne Sadovy: The United Nations developed over many years – it took a lot of debate – something called the Law of the Sea. And what that does is it allows each country that has a coast, jurisdiction out to 200 nautical miles.

John Mimikakis: China’s leaders recognise that overfishing is a problem. Top leaders today in China are pushing for a number of improvements in managing fisheries sustainably.

Marcy: In 1986, China passed a fisheries law that privatised fishing vessels and moved China from a country of wooden boat fishing communes into the modern world of mechanised, commercial fishing trawlers. Now, China is by far the biggest producer and consumer of fish products globally. And since 2002, China has been the world’s leading exporter of fish products. China’s fishing industry, however, is increasingly the victim of its own success.

Cao Ling: Starting from 2020, fishing will be completely banned in the Yangtze River for 10 years.

Marcy: That was Cao Ling from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University describing a hard-to-believe ban on all fishing along the Yangtze River in order to revive its ecosystem. Regarded as the cradle of China’s freshwater fish species, there used to be more than 30 billion fish in the 1950s. And now that number is down to less than 5% due to pollution and overfishing. Many species that live in the river are now endangered, with some on the brink of extinction.

Cao Ling spent a number of years at Stanford University doing research after her PhD from the University of Michigan. She has a unique view of how China and the West sometimes see nature differently.

Cao Ling: Like many other countries, China developed its economy with agriculture as a foundation. But the symbolism of agriculture extends well beyond the cultivation of crops. Agriculture depicts China’s naturalistic view of life. Agriculture also reflects a preference for taming nature over preserving natural habitat and wild species, despite the benefits of ecosystem services and biodiversity to society. However, these ideas are gaining greater appreciation in China today.

Marcy: So since the Han Dynasty, fishing was the main source of livelihood on the Yangtze River basin for over 2,000 years. Chinese called it the “land of fish and rice”. But then came 1986 and reform.

Cao Ling: In 1985, the Chinese government issued a number five central document to promote the privatisation of fishing vessels and market circulation of seafood products. One year later, the government introduced a first comprehensive fisheries law, which set specific rules for the utilisation and protection of fisheries resources. However, due to the poor enforcement of measures designed to sustain wild fish populations, China was under the pressure of overfishing. 

Marcy: In 1986, most countries in the world began realising that the fish in our coastal waters were not limitless.

Wang Yamin: I am Wang Yamin. I am from the Ocean Department of the Shandong Ocean University. We mainly do research on the conservation of marine resources, with a focus on marine policy. Our school was one of the earlier top institutes to conduct marine research.

China’s fisheries development has gone through three stages. The first stage saw rapid development during the “reform and opening-up” period up from the 1980s to the 1990s. The fishing industry and the number of fishing boats expanded at a high growth rate during that time.

Then during the next decade up to the early 2000s, the industry entered a more stable development stage. During this period, the industry started hitting the limit of marine resource capacity. So new regulations were placed on the Chinese fishing industry to control the rapid development, and new measurements implemented to protect fishery resources. For example, since the 1990s, summer closures of fishing areas and limitations on fishing equipment – such as a trawler ban – were introduced. This also includes trying to control the number of fishing vessels.

Marcy:  Just like other parts of the world, China began using mechanical fishing gear like “trawls” to capture fish more efficiently – and boy did it work! “Trawls” are fishing nets that are pulled along the bottom of the ocean, or in mid-water at a specific depth, capturing juvenile fish and everything else in its wake.

Wang Yamin: It is more difficult to enforce regulations on fishing gear, so there are not many regulations in this area. Bottom trawling has been restricted for a while, but now all forms of trawling are limited.

Marcy: But it wasn’t enough to just restrict trawling. Other measures were still needed.

Wang Yamin: Summer closures were also implemented in the 1990s to tackle overfishing. When it was first introduced, the closure length of time was short and the area was small. 

Summer closures first started in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, including the Bohai Sea. In the last two years, summer closures were extended to include the South China Sea, because the overfishing pressure in the South China Sea is also very high.

Marcy: That pretty much covers the entire coastline of China.

Wang Yamin: Summer closures usually start in May and end in August. During summer closures all fishing operations are prohibited in the designated sea areas. No fishing boats are allowed to go out during these periods.

Marcy: China also tried to reduce the number of fishing vessels through a “buyback programme”. This programme was thwarted by a pre-existing fuel subsidy available to all fishermen. It’s a bit complicated, but hear me out. The government had established a fuel subsidy in 2006 for the entire agricultural community, which in China includes fishermen. The fuel subsidy allowed Chinese fishermen to receive anywhere from US$5,000 per year for smaller local fishing boats to up to US$280,000 per year for a distant water 1500 kilowatt bottom trawler.

Wang Yamin: If you cannot catch any fish when you go out to fish, you lose money. But now fishermen have this subsidy, and many fishermen rely on this money to support them. A fisherman does not have to fish, he can use this money to make a living. Therefore many fishermen take this money to support their families. 

Marcy: The central government is now revising the 1986 Fisheries Law as part of the 13th Five Year Plan. But they still haven’t eliminated the fuel subsidies to fishermen.

John Mimikakis: China’s top leaders are pushing a number of reforms.

Marcy: John Mimikakis, an ocean conservationist at the Environmental Defense Fund, is an expert advisor to China on fishery policies.

John: One of them is to greatly expand monitoring, and this is essential to ensure everyone – government, other fishermen, stakeholders – that no one’s breaking the rules. But they’re also pushing to cut the total domestic catch from 13 million tonnes to 10 million tonnes. So they’ve acknowledged that Chinese fishing boats, their own fishing boats, are taking out more fish than is sustainable, and they’re trying to cut back on the total amount of fish that they’re taking out of the sea.

They’re also pushing to reduce the total number of fishing boats on the water. China has about a million fishing boats on the water. The whole world has around four. So about a quarter of all the fishing boats in the world are Chinese vessels. So China’s trying to reduce the number of fishing boats on the water, and also reduce the total power, the horsepower, of all those boats. And that latter part is an effort to get around a common trick where the industry might say: “Well we’re going to cut down the number of boats, but we’re going to just build much much bigger boats, and we’re going to get around the rules.” So China’s trying to circumvent those kinds of workarounds by controlling the number of boats and the total horsepower. They call it “double control”, and they’re getting stricter with those controls.

Marcy: So monitoring the fishing vessels under this new “double control” approach works in principle, but as we learned in our earlier Eight Million podcast season, the plan and the implementation of that plan in China don’t always match.

Zhou Wei: People who are doing the implementation on the front line are the local governments or the local officials.

Marcy: Zhou Wei is an ocean campaigner for Greenpeace. After spending eight years studying environmental science at the prestigious Qingdao and Nanjing universities in China, she dedicated herself to ocean campaigns.

Zhou Wei: Another challenge is the whole fisheries system is broken. Sometimes they don’t need to go back to the port. They can sell their fish to the reefers, and then the reefers go back to port and offload the catch. And there was no good record of the whole trading activity. We don’t know where the fish is from. Is the fish from a legal fishing activity or is the fish from an illegal fishing activity?

Marcy: According to a 2014 China News report, official statistics indicated that Zhejiang province had 22,000 fishing vessels with relevant legal permits. But there were also about 12,000 more fishing vessels that were “black” or unregistered.

Zhou Wei: We don’t have a very good data collecting system. That then becomes a challenge to the management. Let’s imagine if every fisherman doing their fishing logs are properly on the ship, and if that fishing log is electronic, and then every fishing vessel goes back to the same port to offload their catch – they can’t just go anywhere along the coastline. It can also be very helpful to the management, and we can have better data of the fisheries.

Marcy: The good news is that at least one province, Zhejiang province, seems to be taking back control of its fishery policies. John Mimikakis explains…

John: So Zhejiang is considered one of the leaders in China. Their fishing experts are considered to be quite progressive and advanced in their thinking. They are always looking to experiment to try to improve. It’s Zhejiang province right now that’s interested in adapting community fishing grounds. The government is going to work with that community and allow only those community members who have historical rights, say, to those fishing grounds to fish there. That means that community has an incentive to conserve those fish, because as they do, they know that they’ll reap the benefits over time. And the community then can rely on the government to help protect those fishing grounds from intrusion by outsiders.

Marcy: As we said earlier in this episode, China identifies fish as part of its ancient “fish and rice” cultural heritage. China also has 17% of the world’s population and only 7% of its arable land. So fish protein will always need a place at a Chinese meal. With climate change and nutrition driving more people away from meat diets, seafood becomes an important component to China’s food security.

John: So my view is, combined with the laws already on the books that require science to set limits on fishing, I’m optimistic that China can strengthen monitoring, improve its enforcement and adapt the kind of management approaches that have worked elsewhere around the world, and apply them in their own context. And once they do, I think China will start to realise that sustainably managed fisheries are in fact the most profitable fisheries. 

Marcy: So China is reforming the 1986 Fisheries Law with the hope that this cycle of overfishing can be broken. As Deng Xiaoping famously said, China, like many countries, is “crossing the river by feeling the stones”. Step by step, finding out which policies achieve the best results. But there’s still another piece of the puzzle of China’s over US$12 billion trade surplus in fish products: domestic aquaculture. And it turns out that domestic aquaculture is also one of the leading culprits draining China’s coastal waters of fish. Next on episode three of 1986.

Special thanks to our sponsors, the Swire Group Charitable Trust – creating positive change in education, marine and arts through supporting registered non-profit organisations, primarily in Hong Kong and mainland China.

1986 is produced by Sustainable Asia in collaboration with chinadialogue. The season was created and written by me, Marcy Trent Long. The assistant producer was Li-Ting Lin. Special thanks to Oscar Lee, John Mimikakis, Sam Bekemans, Jill Baxter and Zhang Chun. Carson and Kinsey Long created the 1986 graphic. And the intro and outro music is made from repurposed and recovered waste items by Alexander Mauboussin. Learn more about his music at kalelover.net.

Let’s not forget a warm thank you to our voiceovers: Kinsey Long, Annabat Martens, Ethan Chen and Andrew Suckley.

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