Chinese fishing vessels are catching 12 times more than they are reporting annually, a study published today by researchers at the University of British Columbia has found.
“Chinese fishing boats catch about US$11.5 billion worth of fish from beyond their country’s own waters each year,” states a media release. “Most of it goes unreported.”
In a telephone interview with the Straight, Dirk Zeller, a senior research fellow at the UBC Fisheries Centre and one of study’s co-authors, said that the problem is the size of China’s fishing fleets coupled with Beijing’s reluctance to publicize the details of its deals with other governments.
But he was quick to emphasize that while UBC’s investigation focused on China, many countries are lowballing estimates for how much their fleets haul in.
“China is not alone in this,” Zeller said. “Basically, every country in the world underreports its catch.”
He argued that this relates directly to problems of overfishing and the depletion of fish stocks “at the most fundamental level.”
“If we don’t know how much we are actually taking, how can we ever figure out what is sustainable?” Zeller asked. “Countries need to be more transparent and more accountable about their activities.”
The majority of China’s overseas fishing is happening in West Africa. According to the UBC study, Chinese fishing vessels removed an annual average of 2.9 million tonnes of catch worth $7.15 billion from East African waters every year from 2000-11. The region therefore account for 64 percent of Chinese fishing activities outside national waters.
Zeller said that there are a number of explanations for why there is so much activity in West Africa.
The countries that make up Africa’s west coast are relatively poor, which makes it easier for richer nations to negotiate deals in their favour, he explained. Impoverished and less-developed governments mean there are fewer regulations, and also less enforcement of what rules do exist. Finally, many other areas of the world’s oceans are already overfished and simply have less left there to catch.
“Europe, in the 1980s, tried to push their vessels to go and fish overseas because their own waters were already overfished,” Zeller noted. He said that European vessels have been very active in West Africa ever since, and have also moved into areas off the coast of East Africa and throughout the Indian Ocean. Oceania and the Pacific Ocean will inevitably be next, he predicted.
“They are working their way around the word and wherever they go, they are reducing the populations and fishing down the available stocks,” Zeller warned. “It is like a big industrial factory that goes around the world and fishes everything out. And it is not just Europe, it is not just China, it is not just Japan; it is all of them together.”
A summary of the research team’s findings is available here.