The science of sustainable seafood, explained

A fresh look at China’s seafood sustainability in 2022

The global seafood industry revolves around China. It produces 35% of the world’s seafood (mostly from aquaculture) and consumes 45% of it—roughly 65 million tons per year. For comparison, the U.S. consumes about 7 million tons annually. As China’s middle class continues to grow, some research suggests this is just the beginning—the tonnage of seafood consumed in China could potentially triple by 2030.

According to the FAO, China has the largest fleet of fishery and aquaculture vessels at 564,000 (down 47% from 2013, when the estimated fleet size was 1,072,000 vessels). By both volume and value, China is also the largest seafood exporter in the world.

But China’s fisheries have a bad reputation for unsustainable management and a lack of transparency. The East and South China Sea have likely been overfished for decades following the country’s rapid development. Its distant water fleet, fishing on the high seas, sometimes with minimal oversight due to the isolated nature of these fisheries, draws the ire of marine conservationists and human rights activists alike.

China’s choices about its marine resources, and those outside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), will impact everyone. Does this mean the global seafood industry is being led down an increasingly unsustainable path, or are there signs of hope that have been underreported?

In this blog, we report several insights from an array of experts on the status of China’s fishery resources and how they are being managed. Two individuals spoke with us on the condition of anonymity and will be cited as “expert 1” and “expert 2”. We hope this overview will share new perspectives on China’s marine resource management that are not always reported or contextualized in North American and European literature and media.

How did China’s fisheries become so overfished?

Perhaps more incredible than any of the statistics already listed is that approximately half of the ocean’s fishing vessels operate in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. These are not all Chinese vessels of course, but in 2020 China registered 85,690 small-scale marine motorized fishing vessels, with many non-motorized vessels that were unreported. Add the vessels from other countries bordering these seas, and the potential magnitude of fishing effort is enormous for ecosystems that only supply 18% of the world’s catch. For comparison, only about 26,000 commercial fishing vessels were licensed to operate within the U.S. EEZ in 2017.

This massive fleet reflects China’s 5-year plans of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, which focused on economic growth and maximum yield after a previous generation of severe food insecurity. “This philosophy was evident in fisheries policy of the time,” explained expert 1. “Every industry grew and expanded quickly, including the fishing sector. As fishing ramped up and resources were perhaps becoming overfished, the goal and management strategy still favored economic growth.”

During this period China did consider resource conservation, and policies were enacted to limit fishing capacity. In 2000, conservation was further incorporated, and in the current 5-year plan, which started in 2017, “ecological conservation was made the top priority and future investment in fisheries will include these considerations,” said expert 1. But between 1980 and 2000, China’s total marine catch surged from just under 4 million tons to nearly 14 million tons. The increased focus on conservation is probably overdue. According to a University of British Columbia report, it could be too little too late to avoid significant loss of key commercial seafood species.

What is currently being done to curb overfishing and rebuild stocks?

China’s fishery managers must figure out a way to curb overfishing with a fleet multiple times larger than that of the U.S., in seas bordering other major commercial fishing countries. Broad input controls like gear limitations, vessel engine specifications, area closures, and seasonal moratoriums have been the primary strategies to date. “The biggest tool used currently is the summer moratorium in which China closes down all fisheries for a few months,” explained Dr. Yong Chen, professor of marine sciences at SUNY Stony Brook. The moratorium typically begins around May 1st and is expected to end between August 16th and September 1st. The closure covers the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. The program began in 1999, and according to the government press release, it was enacted “as part of the country’s efforts to promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology.” 

The summer moratorium represents a critical reprieve for overfished commercial species during sensitive spawning months. Such a definitive, country-wide closure is an emergency brake for fishery managers and one of the few realistic options given the circumstances.

This moratorium is essential for the success of China’s extensive fishery restocking programs aimed at rebuilding fish stocks rapidly and more completely than is possible by only reducing fishing effort. In 2006 the restocking program planned to release 20 billion juvenile fish annually, increasing to 40 billion by 2020. There remains skepticism around the accuracy of these numbers, but the commitment to rebuilding is certainly well-funded.

The summer moratorium also relieves authorities from an impossible fishery-specific management effort. With so many commercial vessels of all shapes and sizes, it would be unrealistic to inspect every landing and ensure species and gear restrictions are always being followed throughout the year. Furthermore, “unlike in the US where you might have a selective mesh size on a trawl, in China you have very small mesh sizes and pretty much anything will be caught,” said Dr. Robert Boenish, research analyst and food security advisor with experience developing commercial fishing programs in China. “The Chinese palette for seafood is much wider than that in the U.S.,” added Dr. Cody Szuwalski, a research fishery biologist at NOAA who also has experience studying and working with China’s near-shore fisheries. “There aren’t typically size requirements for fish like in the U.S. or Europe. In the U.S., fishermen target large fish that can be cut into something that looks like a steak which you can eat with a fork and a knife. In China, you eat whole fish the size of your hand, picked up with chopsticks.”

Larger, older, slow-growing sea life are rare when a huge fleet uses fishing nets with a small mesh size. “That’s why I think it will be difficult to implement quotas and actually shut down fisheries when you hit them,” worried Szuwalski. “But if you could improve selectivity for different sorts of objectives, and couple that with the summer moratorium and marine protected areas, there might be a happy compromise to allow these fisheries to go on. Unfortunately, nobody has ever done that, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s interesting to think about. I don’t really have an example in the world like China where they are trying to do this at scale.”

Many “traditional” fishery management tools have not been tested extensively in China, so there remains some optimism that those methods can be effective. However, the scale and market demands related to China’s fishing effort are unlike anywhere else in the world.

Even if China’s fishery managers were interested in testing new strategies, data deficiencies must be addressed. Expert 1 told us, “Most areas in China don’t have enough fisheries-dependent data to support stock assessments. There are not enough fishery monitoring programs, not enough services, and managers rely on imperfect mechanisms to verify the quality of data collected.”

“Most data are held by individuals,” added Chen. “Whoever did the survey program tends to withhold that data, and it can be extremely difficult if anyone from an outside institution wants to see the data.” Furthermore, “in China, there is no formal mechanism for presenting your stock assessment to establish a total allowable catch (TAC). So, there is less incentive to run regular stock assessments because it might just become a paper and not be used to make fishery management decisions.”

Even when data is available, translation to English is a hurdle for foreign NGOs and sustainability certifications. Expert 2 felt this language barrier was misunderstood. “Personally, I think there is a language bias here. If you know Chinese, then you will find that a whole other world opens up. Stock assessments in China are not as lacking as most people think. There is very good cooperation between fisheries managers and scientists, while all parties are independent.”

If there is a data gap, expert 1 believes it is closing. “I believe the data will be improved both in terms of quality and quantity going forward.” The lack of historical stock assessments reflected the maximum yield priorities of previous 5-year plans, but now China’s focus is conservation, and they need data and accurate stock assessments to make informed conservation policies. “Some specific evidence of this new emphasis is already present. New electronic monitoring methods for wild capture fisheries have been recently introduced, and onboard observers are present in some areas. There are also new methods to measure TAC and specific plans to mobilize these new initiatives and leverage cooperation at the community level,” said expert 1.

Pilot projects like the Fujian swimming crab fishery is another example of this new focus on data quality and innovation. The Fujian fishery experimented with a multi-species TAC for crab in provincial near-shore waters. The fishery management lessons were valuable, but “the pilot in Fujian could not solve all the problems of multispecies fisheries,” believed expert 2. “Different multi-species fisheries have different characteristics and case-specific strategies should be adopted.”

However, Boenish believed the actual value of this pilot study was in the multi-stakeholder approach from those in charge. “Those involved navigated the process much more holistically and thoroughly than anywhere in China, engaging with provincial government and local stakeholders transparently. I think that process could be a template for other fisheries in China.” Dr. Jake Kritzer, who was directly involved in the Fujian blue swimming crab pilot with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), believed “the point of the pilot project [was] not to achieve any biological change, the point [was] to learn by doing. Those involved learned by asking new questions about things like stock assessments, monitoring systems, individual transfer quotas (ITQs), and new approaches that could help fishermen work better within a TAC. In that regard, I think they were very successful.”

In general, there is encouraging traction for foreign NGO collaboration in China’s domestic fisheries, as was the case in Fujian with EDF. “Relationships have slowly opened up a bit, and now some of the provincial fishery management authorities are working directly with NGOs like EDF, the National Resource Defense Council, and The Nature Conservancy,” said Szuwalski.

What role does China’s distant water fleet play in rebuilding domestic fisheries?

China’s distant water fleet is a controversial topic that is sometimes offered as a solution for overfishing in China’s EEZ. China owns the largest distant water fleet in the world (by far), and their exploits are widely criticized by many NGOs and journalists, both for environmental and human rights concerns. The government has reformed many of its fishing subsidies to better align with international recommendations, but not for its distant water fleet, which Kritzer pondered, “in some ways is a de facto subsidy for domestic fisheries itself. It took a small amount of effort from the domestic fleet and put them on high seas boats, alleviating some fishing effort from the EEZ.”

But the scale of domestic fisheries still far exceeds production from the high seas. “China began developing pelagic fisheries in 1985, and the exclusive economic zone was not established until the 1990s. The production of offshore fisheries is in the range of 2-2.5 million tons, which is a very small number compared to the total production of more than 60 million tons of all aquatic products. So, there is no trade-off,” believed expert 2.

While important questions remain about the world’s ability to hold China accountable on the high seas, its government has limited the number of fishing vessels permitted. In 2020, it initiated a unique (albeit autonomous) three-month fishing moratorium in the southwest Atlantic and east Pacific oceans. Dr. Tabitha Mallory, a professor at the University of Washington and expert on China’s distant water fleet, believes China mostly appears to follow international guidelines on sustainable fisheries, but suggested that improvements could be made in terms of the use of flags of convenience and IUU fishing that could improve international relationships and transparency of the impacts of distant water fishing fleets. With such a massive fleet, there will undoubtedly be some bad apples, and advocacy groups and mainstream media have quickly highlighted those instances. “China doesn’t do anything that Europe has not done exactly the same way,” said Dr. Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia. “The difference is that everything China does is big, so you see it.”

A photo of three Chinese fishing boats off the coast of Timor Leste. Taken by Matthew Thomas Barbour
Chinese fishing boats off the coast of Timor Leste. | Matthew Thomas Barbour

What will the future look like for China’s domestic fisheries?

The prevailing opinion is that many of China’s fisheries are past the point of no return, and even with dramatic policy changes, some fish stocks will never be the same. But there are differing perspectives on which goals we should be measuring. Chen argued that, “it depends on what you use as the term ‘rebuilt.’ Usually, that refers to restoring the system to how it was in the past, but in China’s context, I don’t think that is possible.”

“But it also can depend on perspective,” he added. “If you look at individual species, some are still supporting pretty large fisheries. Most species in coastal China have relatively short life spans and can withstand high fishing pressure to some degree. If you want to go back to an ecological system like we had in the 1940s or ‘50s, I don’t think that’s possible. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

It is also important to note that China’s fisheries are not all equally experiencing the effects of fishing pressure and climate change. “I’m compelled by the large projected temperature changes in the South China Sea being deleterious to the sea life in those ecosystems. But the East China Sea is extraordinarily productive. We like to say it’s overfished or ruined, but the fact is there is still a lot of primary productivity and a ton of life,” said Boenish.

Restocking or “stock enhancement” programs will be important to track in the coming years. “China does stock enhancement on a massive scale,” remarked Szuwalski. There is no precedent for releasing 20-40 billion juvenile sea creatures annually, all for the specific purpose of resuscitating marine ecology.

In conjunction with restocking efforts is China’s booming aquaculture sector. “Talking to some of the government representatives, I have heard that much more money goes to aquaculture than wild capture fisheries. I have even heard that in 20 years, the government may not even be talking about fisheries. It may all just be about aquaculture. This anecdote could have just been bluster from an aquaculture-focused researcher, but it is an interesting idea to think about. What if China only focused on aquaculture?” wondered Szuwalski.

Another factor could be Chinese consumers who are eating more seafood than ever before but are also beginning to consider environmental factors. Sustainability topics have “seen a major increase at conferences in China recently, often around the value of traceability and knowing the origin of your foods,” said Boenish. “As middle class becomes upper middle class, you have the luxury of caring more about these things.”

Expert 2 qualified this trend by explaining, “the concept of sustainability has slowly entered people’s minds in recent years. Some major events, well-known hotels, and large supermarkets have made a lot of efforts to promote sustainable brands. But there is still a big gap between these and the reach to the consumers. Chinese people, like all human beings, will make kind choices. But in the future, there is a need for more dissemination of knowledge about sustainable consumption to the public. Also, it is important to define the criteria for ‘sustainability’, which is often unclear or debatable.”

There are a few eco-certified fisheries and seafood farms in China to possibly inform those considerations, but still, “Chinese seafood companies and producers might be unwilling to pay partnership fees for only sustainability claims if there is no government intervention and market demand.” said expert 1. Sustainability ratings like Seafood Watch have largely overlooked China’s seafood sources, probably due to data deficiencies that make accurate assessments impossible. If a definition for “sustainable” seafood could be articulated, and reliable information on seafood sources could be publicly accessible, Chinese consumers could become more engaged in seafood sustainability and wield enormous leverage on the market.

China’s fisheries have not been accurately portrayed

These interviews exposed more nuance to the fisheries management situation in China than is typically reported. It is fascinating to compare China’s fisheries to those in the U.S. or Europe, but at the same time, such comparisons are inappropriate due to the massive differences politically, geographically, and socially. Critics of China’s marine resource management strategies must appreciate the unique challenges and conditions that no other country can genuinely understand.

“Although there are difficulties and challenges, China’s reforms are very strong and efficient. It is believed that China’s experience in fisheries reform will also provide lessons for many countries,” said expert 2. Szuwalski agreed, adding, “the juxtaposition of the differences between how western society and China are pursuing fisheries management is very interesting, and I hope that it is not a failed opportunity for learning.”

At this point, it is impossible to accurately predict the future of China’s domestic fisheries. Overfishing occurred at historical levels for decades, but the government has finally pivoted its priorities and is investing heavily in marine recovery programs. Perhaps climate change will make some plans impossible, but the capabilities of a focused Chinese government initiative should not be underestimated.

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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