How much do you know about China’s marine fisheries?

By Xiong Zhang

This is the second in a series of blogs about fisheries and conservation in China. Read part one and part three.

Open an atlas and you can easily recognize Mainland China by its rooster-like shape: tail pointing to Middle East, head towards to Russia and Korea, back carrying Mongolia, and chest facing the Pacific.

As a child growing up in China, I was taught in my middle-school geography class that our marine territory consists of four seas (from north to south, 41° - 6° N): the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. These waters amount to about 3 million sq. km. So when I look at China on an atlas, I see something a little different: I see a torch rather than a bird, with the land mass as the flame, and the marine territory as the handle of the torch.

Given the nation’s vast marine territory, China has a long history of navigation, trade, and fisheries. (As well as territorial disputes with neighbouring states such as Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines). Chinese long-distance navigation dates back to the Song Dynasty (11th century C.E.), when the magnetic compass, one of the nation’s greatest inventions, was adapted for use in navigation and maritime trade — a full two centuries earlier than in Europe.

China’s marine fisheries, however, are a relatively a modern development. Very little is known or documented about them before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The history of Chinese fisheries since then is usually divided into three stages.

The first stage (1949-1979) was a period of steady but slow growth, Major target fish during this period were hairtail, small yellow croaker, big yellow croaker, and some smaller and younger fishes (e.g. anchovy) started to appear later. Over thirty years the total annual marine catch increased threefold, from about one to four megatonnes (Mt).

The second stage (1980-1999) was a period of rapid growth with the total marine catch tripling again in just two decades, thanks to new policies encouraged the development of fishery-related industries and technologies. In 1985, the Chinese government enacted a management policy that stimulated the development of aquaculture, fishing and processing, and distant-water fishing. It was during this era that overfishing emerged as a problem, with the total catch peaking at 13 Mt in 1999.

The third stage (2000-present) is marked as an “annealing” period, with a leveling-off of marine fisheries production. Annual catches have fluctuated between 12 and 14 Mt, the result of a nationwide total-catch-control policy enacted to reign in unsustainable growth. Nowadays China’s catch, about 20% of the total global fisheries production, is proportional to the amount of people it’s meant to feed (20% of the global population).

Nevertheless, China’s marine fisheries have reached a tipping point, with overfishing and habitat destruction becoming urgent problems. Historically, the fisheries targeted about 150 fish species. Only eight of them remain commercially viable. High demand for seafood, coupled with low productivity from domestic fisheries, have triggered the rise of China’s marine aquaculture and distant-water (i.e. foreign) fishing industries. China now has the world’s largest marine aquaculture industry, and its distant-water fishing fleet is also one of the world’s largest (read more in Fish and Fisheries, Pauly et al. 2014).

One of the problems is that many Chinese commercial vessels use destructive fishing gears such as bottom-trawl nets. Bottom trawling, where a weighted net is dragged along the seabed collecting nearly everything in its path, is one of the least-selective and most-destructive fishing methods. Large amounts of non-target fish such as seahorses are collected as incidental catch (bycatch), with fatal results for the animals in most cases. Large areas of important marine habitats (e.g. coral reefs) are also damaged or destroyed in the process.

Given this, China has regulated bottom trawling in their own coastal waters. Unfortunately, the regulations come in the form of a seasonal summer moratorium (established in 1995) that has not proven to be effective. This is due to the surge of fishing activity after the summer season, when fishers return, furiously, to unregulated activity. In just a few months, any recovery made during the yearly moratorium is typically lost.

These issues are the inspiration behind my research with Project Seahorse. Over the next few years I will investigate the impact of Chinese fishing activities on seahorses and marine species and habitats more generally. My hope is that this research will generate useful conservation policies to protect not just China’s seahorses, but many other fish species threatened by bottom trawling.

Xiong Zhang is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow him on Twitter @Harry01301.