China Vastly Under-Reports Global Fish Catch

China is massively under-reporting the catch of its distant-waters fishing fleet, according to a little-noticed 2012 report to the European Parliament.

The catch was reported to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as averaging 368,000 tonnes of fish from distant-water fleets per year over the past decade. It was actually more than 12 times as big, at 4.6 million tonnes, according to the 102-page report, titled The Role of China in World Fisheries.

The study focuses on marine capture fisheries (excluding aquaculture and inland fisheries) and deals with mainland China. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are excluded. It is based on a specifically assembled, large international database of reported occurrences of Chinese vessels in various parts of the world, and related information, the authors say.

It does note that China has "significantly improved its cooperation track record in recent years, particularly within the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations" although the country frequently opposes changes to regulatory rules.

"In any case, China's fisheries agreements are characterized by lack of transparency and, quite often, controversial content."

The report comes at a time when marine scientists are expressing growing alarm about overfishing, which is denuding the world's oceans. According to the FAO, 52 percent of global fish stocks are fully exploited, 20 percent are moderately exploited, 17 percent are depleted and 1 percent is recovering. That means a quarter of the world's fish stocks are overexploited or depleted, with 52 percent fully exploited and in danger of being overexploited and collapsing.

For instance, the cod fishery off the eastern coast of North America, once the most abundant in the world, completely collapsed in 1992 and although commercial fishing has been banned, the stocks remain depleted. Some 40,000 people working in the industry lost their jobs.

As a result of the depletion of ocean stocks, aquaculture - farmed fish - in 2009 surpassed wild catch for the first time and continues to grow rapidly although that causes a growing strain on marine resources, according to the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) because farmed fish are fed from wild catch. There are also numerous environmental problems from farmed fish.

Unreported or unregulated catches around the Africa region show that around 2.5 million tonnes per year of the estimated Chinese distant water catch of about 3.1 million tonnes per year in the African region, may be unreported. Similarly, the disposition of the catch remains unclear, though there is evidence that some of it ends up on international markets, notably in the European Union, the report notes.

The authors called the excess fishing capacity "the major impediment to the effective management of marine resources in China, generally suffering from over-exploitation. However, the strategies to reduce fleet capacity have had limited success so far in a highly-decentralized system where the registration of fishing vessels is handled by regional offices."

China began developing its distant-water fleet fairly recently, in 1985, but the fleet has now expanded to 1,900 distant vessels in 2010. During the period from 2000 to 2010 an average of 1,800 of them operated in waters far from China's shores.

The distant-water sector appears to depend heavily on subsidies to survive, the report continues, and despite having evolved from being entirely state-owned to being 70 privatized, "it is the stated goal of the government to modernize and expand (and restructure) the sector. A third of the industry is composed of the state-owned enterprise, Chinese National Fisheries Corporation, and its subsidiaries.

Assembling the data to estimate the size of China's fleet and its catch was difficult, the authors said.

"Given these circumstances, obtaining a more accurate (even if likely imprecise) estimate of the actual catch of Chinese distant-water fleets must be based entirely on non-official sources. Consequently, we used methods that rely on the fact that any collective activity of the scale considered here is bound to generate a 'shadow' on the societies it is embedded in and on which it impacts. From this 'shadow', the scale of the activity in question can be inferred, if often imperfectly and thus requiring further examination."

China is the fourth-largest importer of fish after the EU, at US$21.6 billion in 2009, behind Japan with US$14.9 billion and the United States with US$14.1 billion in 2008. Of all of the top 10 importing countries China growth of imports is the highest, at 18 percent, driven by increasing demand as China's per capita income and thus ability to pay continues to rocket upward.

The country has become an important consumer of fishery products in its own right, consuming about a quarter of global demand with about a fifth of fifth of the world population. Consumption consumption has more than doubled over the last 20 years to around 27 to 32 kg/capita/year, although per capita consumption appears to have reached a limit, the report notes. Aquaculture including carp supplies about 40 percent of China's consumption.

"Rapid industrialization of China's agricultural and food industry appears to have outpaced the development of the food safety control system," the report continues, "and regular food safety scandals have plagued the Chinese food industry in recent years, undermining confidence in the sector and government's control institutions."

Between 2006 and 2011, the report notes, European Union member states and other bodies issued 335 "Rapid Alert" notices with regard to Chinese fishery products which did not comply with EU food safety standards, with about half in relation to use of illegal chemicals in aquaculture and additives in processing.

Today, however, according to the report, there have been significant improvements in the control system for veterinary medicines.

China's presence in West Africa and South America is raising growing concern about the impact in the local economy and in the environment of the host country. IUU activities are probably the main cause for concern, with the agreement-dependency of the host country making it very difficult to fight against IUU practices (agreements are usually linked to loans and aid projects).

Finally it is worth noting EU stakeholders' concerns over China's approach to secure fishery agreements, essentially based on offering the third party whatever is demanded to secure their supply. Stakeholders believe this is resulting in tougher negotiations of fisheries agreements for the EU, particularly in Western Africa.