Fishy Business: China’s Mixed Signals on Sustainable Fisheries

by Graeme Smith

MY INITIATION INTO the politics of the demand for Pacific seafood in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began with a Packard Foundation–funded project led by former colleagues from the University of Technology Sydney. Our focus was the humble, slow-moving sea cucumber, or bêche-de-mer (BDM), the dried body wall of the echinoderm that is beloved throughout the Chinese world (and almost nowhere else). BDM, also known as trepang, was the iron ore of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Australia–China trade, with trade between Macassans and Aboriginal peoples pre-dating white settlement. In the nineteenth century, ships from Mother England offloaded their unfortunate convict cargo and filled their holds with BDM harvested in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and beyond,1 as well as sandalwood from Tonga, Fiji, and elsewhere in the South Pacific.2 This made the return journey far more profitable than the outward one.

The title of our final report, Interactive governance analysis of the bêche-de-mer ‘fish chain’ from Papua New Guinea to Asian markets,3 resembles many people’s first culinary experience of sea cucumbers: a bit bland. The story was anything but bland, however.

From exporters in Milne Bay in eastern Papua New Guinea (PNG) preyed on by local pirates to importers in Guangzhou and Hong Kong frustrated by the variable quality of the final product, and PNG provincial government officials struggling to manage the industry, the supply chain is rife with problems. Or, in the case of PNG, the dormant supply chain, because sea cucumber populations had crashed under the pressure of demand from buyers in the PRC. On finding that nearly all stocks had dropped by more than 80 percent in the previous five years, the PNG Government imposed a fishing ban in 2009 that stayed in force for eight years — a story repeated throughout the Pacific, including in Tonga and Vanuatu.

Because of the historical ubiquity of sea cucumbers in the South Pacific before 2009, BDM was the main source of income for half a million villagers across PNG’s coast and islands, driven in part by the appetite of China’s officials and growing middle class for luxury seafood.4 One of the first impacts of Xi Jinping’s 习近平 anti-corruption and austerity campaigns was that BDM became more affordable.5 At its peak in the mid-2000s, PNG was the world’s third-largest supplier for the Hong Kong market. From Tonga to Tuvalu, divers were taking ever-greater risks at greater depths to access valuable species such as the white teatfish sea cucumber — often with deadly consequences. After the PNG fishery abruptly closed, hunger stalked places like Milne Bay. Villagers — by then accustomed to spending weeks at a time fishing on remote coral reefs — had made the economically rational decision to neglect their subsistence gardens for this more lucrative trade. With sea cucumber fishing banned, they and their families found themselves struggling on one meal a day and relying on unappetising ‘starvation foods’ like banana suckers (secondary shoots from the banana palm). Even PNG’s Chinese community was affected; with no cash flowing into the coastal and island communities, Chinese-run trade stores (see the China Story Yearbook 2017: Prosperity, Forum, ‘Dreams of Prosperity in Papua New Guinea’, pp.131–136) found themselves struggling, and many shopkeepers simply returned to Fujian, leaving some villagers with a long trek just to buy basic goods.

While it provided a livelihood for many in PNG, the trade in sea cucumbers paled in comparison with the lucrative tuna trade. The tuna trade has less impact on island communities because the boats are generally crewed by foreign nationals and tuna cannot be accessed on a commercial scale without huge upfront investment. But the trade is not without danger, as shown by a series of investigative reports funded by the Judith Nielson Foundation in 2021.6 These detail the suspicious deaths of fishery observers at sea, including on Taiwanese-flagged vessels, and the observers’ near impossible role in ensuring boats fish according to the rules when the regulators they represent are often thousands of kilometres away and facing a captain and crew looking to maximise their earnings. Of the sixteen unsolved deaths listed on the Association for Professional Observers website, nine were men from PNG, Fiji, and Kiribati.7 With the emergence of the PRC’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet as the dominant one in the Pacific, the reflagging of ships and the proliferation of shell companies further hinder transparency, including about their impact on fish populations.

The exact size of China’s DWF fleet is unknown. A 2020 report by the UK-based global think tank Overseas Development Institute claimed China had 16,966 DWF ships, even though PRC sources put the number at or below 3,000 vessels.8 China is indisputably the world’s largest DWF fleet — and the most prone to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, even outstripping the notorious Taiwanese fleet. A 2021 report to the US Congress, cited China and Taiwan alongside Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, Russia, and Senegal for illegal fishing, bycatch of endangered species, and shark catches on the high seas.9 There is no doubting the enthusiasm of PRC state actors for accessing Pacific fishing grounds; a recent Ministry of Commerce investment guide to PNG enthusiastically described its exclusive marine fishery zone:

[A]pproximately 2.4 million square kilometers … an important Pacific fishery, rich in tuna, prawns, lobsters, reef fish and sea cucumbers. The tuna catch is about 150,000 to 200,000 metric tons, accounting for about 20–30% of catch in the Pacific and 10% of the world’s total catch .

PNG looms large in China’s DWF ambitions, and in its goals to develop a ‘blue economy’ and become a ‘maritime great power’,10 as announced by former president Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 in 2012 and embraced by Xi Jinping within the framework of the Maritime Silk Road. Much of the rhetoric around these issues is impenetrable, even by Communist Party of China (CPC) standards, with boilerplate modernisation jargon (‘build a great maritime power’ 建设海洋强国) layered on top of catch-all expressions like ‘blue economy’. But whereas the rhetoric of the Hu era pointed to the intrinsic value of environmental protection, today, the focus is more on the economic benefits of an unpolluted environment,11 as captured in Xi’s phrase ‘green water and green mountains mean mountains of gold and silver’ 绿水青山就是金山银山 from his marathon work report to the Nineteenth CPC Congress in 2017.

The issues plaguing the PRC’s DWF sector draw out familiar themes in Chinese politics: the impossibility of strictly regulating PRC enterprises far from home, the requirement to appear to be a ‘responsible great power’, and the obligation to secure resources for the domestic market — a shift from ‘going out’ to ‘coming home’. Also: never get between a local government and a subsidy.

Three provinces dominate the DWF sector: Zhejiang, Shandong, and Fujian. The DWF sector started out largely controlled by a state-owned enterprise, the China National Fisheries Corporation. Over time, private operators came to dominate the sector, albeit backed by provincial and city governments anxious to generate revenue and find work for fishers laid off in the restructuring of China’s domestic fishing fleet.12 In the early Hu era, the DWF sector’s lobbying efforts paid off and it secured lucrative fuel subsidies that helped make the industry profitable.13 All three provinces have established DWF bases to support fishing on the high seas and in exclusive economic zones. These provincial governments, supported by the Ministry of Agriculture under the broad umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative, are making a major effort to build DWF bases to provide the PRC fleet with processing plants and other infrastructure; a recent Pacific example was the refurbishment of the SinoVan fisheries plant in Vanuatu, funded by a loan from the Export–Import Bank of China. The plant, officially launched by Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai in 2019, will be run as a joint venture between China National Fisheries Corporation and the Government of Vanuatu.14

Activities of China’s DWF fleet off the Galapagos Islands prompted widespread alarm
Source: Pixabay

In the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Index produced by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime in 2019, the PRC topped the list of the ten worst-performing countries.15 Herein lies the contradiction for the CPC: the Party wants China to be a ‘great maritime power’, with the seafood, employment, and revenue that come with it; but it also wants to avoid a reputation for being a dodgy global operator, particularly in the waters of developing nations. The central government has even taken measures to rein in IUU fishing: setting up a blacklist of violators, trialling its own observer system on boats, and even putting a moratorium on squid fishing. But new technologies are bringing to light both the ingenuity of rogue mainland fishers in avoiding detection and the ineffectiveness of new regulations. A recent report published by the global Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC)16 used a maritime intelligence predictive tool called Windward to visualise the activities of China’s DWF fleet off Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, where the sheer size of the PRC fleet prompted widespread alarm in 2020.17 The CIMSEC report reveals not just the staggering scope of China’s high-seas fishing — with a fleet of up to 350 vessels active off the Galapagos for several months from July 2020 — but also the diverse array of tactics used to dodge the letter of the law: ships ‘going dark’ as they enter Ecuador’s protected fisheries, catch being transhipped to refrigerated cargo ships or ‘reefers’, reflagging of the ships to other nations such as Panama, and even changing their reported draughts and registered lengths to obscure their activities. Further complicating the picture is the partial militarisation of the fleet, enabling it to act as a kind of third sea force after the Chinese navy and coast guard, particularly in disputed areas such as the Senkaku Islands.

Like many environmental issues in the PRC, the central government faces the dilemma of how to balance conflicting interests. Private companies now dominate the DWF fleet and the state has little ability to regulate canny operators. If the central government continues to subsidise companies that encourage excessive fishing, the message to provincial and city governments will remain mixed. If provinces like Fujian, Shandong, and Zhejiang benefit from ships bulging with squid, albacore, and shark fin (which, though banned from state banquets almost ten years ago, is still considered a delicacy in the south of the PRC), it is unlikely anyone will be closely checking logbooks when the boats come in. As for sea cucumbers, Palau’s President, Surangel Whipps Jr., has decried — to little effect — China’s unwillingness to answer his nation’s calls to end the illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers in Palau’s territorial waters, saying they ‘don’t seem to care and that is unacceptable. They should take responsibility for their people, and it is like they encouraged them by ignoring them. It’s not good.’18