Reporters have drawn connections between the string of South Korean skirmishes and political tension around the South China Sea (China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia all have claims over parts of this body of water). But it’s also clear Chinese fishermen are desperate for new sources of fresh catch. Within China’s own exclusive economic zone, the nation has lost “one-half of its coastal wetlands, 57% of mangroves, and 80% of coral reefs, most of which are critical spawning, nursing, or feeding grounds for fish,” according to a 2016 study undertaken by a team of international experts.
That’s thanks to trawling, a practice in which fishermen drag long nets along the ocean floor and kill practically any living thing in their path. In addition to destroying coral reefs and the habitats necessary for healthy ocean wildlife populations, fishermen discard the bycatch, the sea creatures accidentally trapped in theirs nets. This unintended catch can include endangered species like sea turtles, as well as “trash fish,” species of edible fish that many in China (and in other countries) do not want to eat. (Some Chinese fishermen try to turn a profit off their bycatch, trading trash fish to West African citizens in exchange for labor or selling them to fish meal processors in China; sea turtles, on the other hand, can be sold on the black market in the mainland.)
Many nations have taken steps to impede bottom trawling, largely because it is a disaster for marine ecosystems. For example, Chile permanently banned this fishing method in 2015, while other countries like Indonesia have imposed limited bans.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) the world’s commercial fish stocks that exist at biologically sustainable levels has declined from 90% in 1974 to 68.6% in 2013. In other words, nearly one-third of global commercial fish stocks are already being overfished.
In the same 2016 report, the FAO noted that in 2014, China accounted for just over 18% of the global marine catch; by 2030, China is projected to account for 38% of global marine catch, more than double any other region (the FAO counts China as a single region—the others are Europe and Central Asia; North America; Latin America and Caribbean; Japan; “other East Asia and the Pacific”; Southeast Asia; India; “other South Asia”; Middle East and North Africa; Sub-Saharan Africa; and the “rest of the world”).
During a 2013 visit to Tanmen, a fishing village on Hainan island in the South China Sea, Chinese president Xi Jinping urged his nation’s fishermen to “build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish.” Chinese fishermen took these messages to heart. They upped their distant-water fishing—sourcing catches out on the high seas and in the commercial fishing territories of other countries.
According to a 2016 report by the environmental watchdog organization Greenpeace, the Middle Kingdom’s total number of fishing boats sailing on the high seas and in other countries’ coastal areas runs just under 2,500. That’s approximately 10 times the size of the entire US distant water commercial fishing fleet.
A country can draw up agreements to allow other nations’ fishermen to catch “surplus” stock in their exclusive economic zones, and China likely has many of these in place, including with Mauritania, Senegal, and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, according to the Wilson Center, a Washington, DC-based independent research firm.
But a 2016 paper published in Nature Communications found that China has been disguising the total amount of fish caught by its distant-water fishing fleets. In its reports to the FAO dating as far back as the 1980s, the study found, Beijing would overstate the number of fish caught within its own exclusive economic zone, while underreporting how much was caught far away. They can get away with it because the agreements drafted to allow Chinese vessels to fish in other countries’ economic zones are not available to the public, and the only way to determine whether the fishing was illegal is to bring the accused to court.
From 2000 to 2011, China officially reported 368,000 tons of fish caught per year, on average, outside its domestic fishing areas. But a 2013 study that analyzed catch counts of Chinese fishing vessels in international zones from “scientific literature, mass media, [and] websites of both governmental and non‐governmental organizations” with field observations and interviews came up with a much different number: 3.1 million tons or more of fish per year in the same time frame, nearly 10 times what China was reporting to the FAO. Based on the data available, the researchers believe the uncounted catch is predominantly coming from Chinese fishermen scraping West African nations’ ocean floors.