Brianna Elliott
Published: 04/12/2013

A Chinese fishing vessel is escorted into an Australian harbor. Photo by MateusCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

China has the world’s largest human population, coming in at 1.2 billion, and boasts some of the globe’s most progressive technologies and industries. It’s no surprise then that the country created one of the grandest fisheries fleets at the turn of the 21st century, one that included specialized bottom trawlers, squid jiggers, and mother ships that delivered catches to advanced ports. 

But just how China conducts its fisheries industry is unclear. It’s known to vastly overreport its domestic catches, according to Nature, and a new collaborative study headed by scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) revealed that for the past decade, China has grossly underreported its foreign catches to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

These results, published in Fish and Fisheries and involving 500 reports in 14 languages from scientific literature, newspapers, magazines, and media outlets, showed through a series of models and equations that China had at least 900 vessels in 93 countries. The average catch weighed in at 4.6 million tons a year—nearly 12 times greater than China’s reported foreign catch of 368,000 tons. 

More than half of that harvest   2.9 million tons   came from West African waters, a particularly lucrative fisheries resource that many locals depend on and where the European Union, except off of Mauritania, stopped fishing nearly a decade ago. Mauritanian populations of octopus, grouper, and other bottom-dwelling species have remained low for years in an area where fisheries limits are already tight on EU nations. 

“We had no idea the Chinese catch was so big and of course we never included it in our models,” Didier Gascuel of the European University of Brittany in Rennes, told Nature. Gascuel advises the EU and Mauritania on fisheries quotas. 

In addition, the research found that Chinese vessels employ West African locals on their fishing vessels as the lowest-tier crew, underpaying them and taking away their local resource. “What is significant about this is that often these men are not paid in cash wages, but rather in frozen boxes of what are called ‘trash’ fish,” notes the study. “These are species that are not considered to have any value on the Chinese or international markets, but can be sold locally. It is then up to the local crew to obtain whatever price they can for these fish in return for their labor.”

Not reporting catches is not only unfair to nations that abide by set fisheries standards and publicly available agreements such as the EU’s, but it offsets fisheries catch limits. These are set by experts and allow a sustainable amount of seafood harvesting, one that permits fish to reproduce at an appropriate rate to avoid population collapse. 

The UBC research team submitted a proposal to the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament in 2012 to help mitigate Chinese underreporting. Among its suggestions: China pay the FAO to hire fisheries observers on Chinese vessels to ensure proper reporting, and a European university develop a research unit to focus specifically on China’s ocean affairs. The main reason? Lead researcher Daniel Pauly said it well to Nature: “We can’t assess the state of the oceans without knowing what’s being taken out of them.”