There is no doubt that China is a key player in the current era of industrialized global fishing. The fact that China operates the world’s largest fleet of fishing vessels is well established.
The related facts of China being the world’s largest consumer, producer and exporter of seafood are generally clubbed together when discussing the country’s fishing capacity and its environmental impacts.
The general world view labels China an irresponsible nation whose nationals seem to have an insatiable appetite for fish. However, there are many complexities to the story of China’s role in global fishing, and these complexities remain poorly reported.
In the most commonly cited paper on China’s distant water fishing fleets, the authors said “…. the practices of the Chinese distant-water fleets do not differ much from those of other countries in East Asia and Europe that also deploy distant-water fleets, the main difference with Chinese fleets being their size.”
The authors wrote that unless studies into China’s ocean affairs are conducted with reference to the broader international context, “the necessary dialogue with Chinese authorities and with Chinese scientists would be burdened by the suspicion that China is being singled out for practices that are, unfortunately, widespread in distant-water fisheries.”
A 2015 story reported how President Obama had weakened the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act in 2014 by including clauses that made it easier for foreign vessels to fish under an American flag.
This change was made to an act which had been already weakened in 2006, when exemptions were pushed to revive the dwindling distant-water tuna fleets of America. The biggest exemptions were for crewing and ownership, allowing vessels to be manned almost entirely by foreign crew and to be owned equally by foreign companies.
Over the past couple of years, numerous reports in the mainstream American media have highlighted the issue of labor abuses in the fishing industry, which supplies seafood to American consumers.
One senator said in response, “I think most Americans were horrified to learn that the fish in the pet food they give to their cats and dogs were being caught by children forced to work on ships against their will.”
The United States imports roughly 91% of its seafood. In 1977, shrimp imports to the United States totalled 103,429 metric tons. By 2016, that number had grown to 603,591 metric tons, with Asia supplying more than 75% of it.
The immense burden of supplying America with cheap shrimp has come at an enormous cost to communities in Asia, even leaving aside the above-mentioned labor issues.
However, just as in the case of reporting on China, most media reports chose to ignore the complexities of the labor supply chains and clubbed all of the problems under the banner of “slave labor.”
Predictably, given America’s history with slavery, the stories had an immediate impact. They prompted government action, and in February 2016, a move was made to amend an 85-year-old law that allowed goods derived from slavery into the American market.
However positive the move might seem, the fact is that simply because demand existed in America, slave-like conditions were allowed to exist elsewhere. Americans are well aware that to abolish slavery a change to the law is merely a start.
The country has a lot of work to do before it can hope to abolish it overseas, especially when it continues to have such a high demand for cheap seafood.
A search for the year 2016 on whofishesfar.org shows a list of 1164 vessels registered to countries in the European Union (EU), which fish in distant waters. This only includes official agreements, since the EU Commission has no data on private agreements.
Additionally, this database was made public by a group of NGOs, which compiled it using a Freedom of Information request, meaning that within the European Union, too, data is neither readily available nor is not entirely transparent.
There is ample evidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by European fleets in West Africa and the Southern Ocean, suggesting that the EU Commission also has progress to make.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2014 report on the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture predicts that by 2030 China will account for 37% of world fish production and 38% of fish supply for human consumption, including being a net exporter of food fish. This means that the rest of the world, including the United States and the European Union, will rely on China for meeting their continued demand for seafood.
To prevent the further burdening of discussions with China, a larger, intersectional approach must be taken to engage with the country.
But before that happens, public perception must move away from labeling China as the sole country responsible for pushing global fisheries to the brink.
Siddharth Chakravarty is pursuing a course in Public Policy at the Takshashila Institution, India. As an independent researcher, his interests lie in studying industrial, distant-water fishing fleets from the perspective of labor-supply chains.