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Overfishing Pushes 80% of Chinese Fishermen Towards Bankruptcy

In mid-September, the fishing season got under way as usual in Ningbo, on China’s east coast, after the three-month season when fishing is forbidden. Over 2,000 steel-hulled boats headed out to sea. But, on board, there was little cause for optimism.

“For the last two years profits from coastal fishing have been low,” explained Chen Jiming, chief engineer at the Hainan Fisheries Research Institute. “Early estimates show that, with increasing fuel and labor costs, about 80% of fishermen will suffer losses without a diesel subsidy or similar support.”

Chen’s comments have been backed up higher up the chain. Speaking at the first Annual World Ocean Congress in Dalian on September 9, head of the China Fisheries Association Qi Jingfa said that China leads the world in production and trade of aquatic products, but is weaker than other nations when it came to ocean fishing. Catches from China’s coastal waters have been static for years.

Closed seasons for fishing in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea have recently ended, but both experts and fishing boat captains predict overfishing and pollution will mean boats setting to sea this year will see little in the way of profit, and may even suffer losses.

Young fish, depleted stocks and unused boats

Mo Zhaolan, a researcher at China’s Institute of Oceanology, said that overfishing and pollution are having a much bigger impact than a decade ago. The four major fisheries of the 1950s – Bohai, Zhoushan, the South China Sea coast and the Gulf of Tonkin – are so badly degraded that they exist only in name, Mo said. 

One captain working the South China Sea coast off Guangzhou said that many local fisheries have been lost. Catches of the four main species – the Japanese Spanish mackerel, eel and the large and small yellow croaker – have plummeted. In the past, a successful fishing trip might have netted hundreds of kilograms of the large yellow croaker, but you only get a few a year now, the captain said. This has lead to rocketing prices for the fish: from under 100 yuan a kilogram to 4,000 to 5,000 yuan. 

Lu Shuxin, former head of the Shandong Oceans and Fisheries Institute, said that the traditional fisheries of the Yellow Sea off Shandong province have been badly damaged. The fish caught have got smaller and younger. China’s prawn catch once reached 40,000 tonnes a year, but recent surveys put the figure at only 7,000 tonnes. In the 1970s, most Chinese seerfish caught were three years old. By the 1990s, they were two years old and today they are only one year old. According to a report by Weihai fishery authorities, in the first quarter of 2012, some 80% of boats were tied up in port at any one time – at times, 90%. This is more than in any other year, and fishermen are now more likely to stop fishing before the end of the season.

In July, the State Oceanic Administration published China Regional Fisheries Studies, a set of academic works on issues affecting the fishing industry. One of its volumes, on the ocean environment, describes the downward spiral of overfishing in China’s coastal waters: once large and valuable fish have been overfished, attention turns to a less valuable species, and so on. This continues until all species have been over-exploited, fisheries depleted and biodiversity damaged, it says. 

In the Yellow Sea, between 1979 and 1999, catches grew in parallel with the number of boats out fishing. But since 1999, catches have fallen, even though the number of boats has risen. The Yellow Sea’s ecosystem can no longer support the excess fishing capacity.

Damaging fishing methods and pollution

Fishing methods used in the South China Sea are also a cause for concern. The use of trawl and set nets – both very damaging to ecosystems – is common in China. The Guangdong fishing boat captain explained that a net dragged from sea to shore will catch many immature fish, and remove prey for larger fish. “We’ve just been using big trawl nets for a little more than 10 years, and the four main species are facing extinction. Even after the off-season you don’t catch much after the first couple of trips.”

The set nets often seen in the Qiongzhou Straits and off the south-west coast of Hainan are hugely damaging to fisheries. With a mesh size of less than 1 centimetre in width, these nets catch immature and small fish. Boats have increased the number of nets and decreased mesh size, resulting in more intensive fishing. “For a quick profit some fishermen use electrocution, explosives or poisons, which is disastrous for the ocean environment,” said Chen Jiming of the Hainan Fisheries Institute.

Pollution is also a major cause of the fisheries’ decline. Li Yongqi, honorary dean of the Oceanic Economy and Law Institute, said that China’s coasts are facing unprecedented resource and environmental pressure, with ever greater tension between developing the oceans and protecting the environment. 

Chen Leizhong, of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences and head of the East China Sea Fishery Research Institute, explained that the East China Sea suffers from three main types of pollution: industrial waste-water polluted with nitrates, phosphates and heavy metals dumped into the sea; pesticides washed off farmland by the rain; and untreated sewage. These, in combination with the loss of mudflats to land reclamation, present a severe threat to China’s fisheries. 

The “2012 China Oceans Development Report,” published in June, shows that in 2010 excessive levels of petroleum hydrocarbons were found in organisms at Guhuang Hekou, Shengsi, Hangzhou Bay, Sanmen Bay, Taizhou Duqiao and Jinjiang Weitou bay. At 12% of monitoring stations, levels were in breach of Class III marine organism standards. During the 2011 Bohai Gulf oil spill, oily substances were seen floating off the coast of Changdao in Shandong, coinciding with unusual fish die-offs. Oil was found on the beaches at Leting in Hebei, and large numbers of farmed clams died.

There have been some efforts to stem the degradation. Over the 11thFive-Year Plan period (2006-2010), fish catches were held steady at around levels from the year 2000, and China has gradually implemented closed seasons – times of the year when fishing is not allowed – in the Yellow Sea, Bohai Gulf, East China Sea and South China Sea. This aims to reduce the overexploitation of fisheries, arrest degradation of the marine environment and boosting aquatic populations, ensuring steady growth for the nation’s fishing industry.

Fishing communities and busineses are also working on the more technologically demanding deep-ocean fishing, which may provide the industry with some relief.

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By Liang Jialin and Jiang Han. This article was first published in Economic Information Daily, where Liang Jialin is a reporter and Jiang Han an intern. 

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