Wed, May 03, 2017 - Page 9 News List

China’s appetite pushing fish stocks to the brink

Chinese boats in west Africa report just 8 percent of their catch, compared with 29 percent for European-flagged vessels, and they are estimated to steal 40,000 tonnes of fish per year from Senegalese waters, which is worth about US$28 million

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY Times News Service, JOAL-FADIOUTH, Senegal

Illustration: Mountain People

Once upon a time, the seas teemed with mackerel, squid and sardines, and life was good, but now, on opposite sides of the globe, sun-creased fishermen lament as they reel in their nearly empty nets.

“Your net would be so full of fish, you could barely heave it onto the boat,” said Mamadou So, 52, a fisherman in Senegal, gesturing to the meager assortment of tiny fish flapping in his wooden canoe.

A world away in eastern China, Zhu Delong, 75, also shook his head as his net dredged up a disappointing array of pinkie-size shrimp and fledgling yellow croakers.

“When I was a kid, you could cast a line out your back door and hook huge yellow croakers,” he said. “Now the sea is empty.”

Overfishing is depleting oceans across the globe, with 90 percent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited or facing collapse, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

From Russian king crab fishermen in the west Bering Sea to Mexican ships that poach red snapper off the coast of Florida, unsustainable fishing practices threaten the well-being of millions of people in the developing world who depend on the sea for income and food, experts said.

China, with its enormous population, growing wealth to buy seafood and the world’s largest fleet of deep-sea fishing vessels, is having an outsize effect.

Having depleted the seas close to home, Chinese fishermen are sailing farther to exploit the waters of other nations, their journeys often subsidized by a Chinese government that is more concerned with domestic unemployment and food security than the health of the world’s oceans and the nations that depend on them.

Increasingly, China’s growing armada of distant-water fishing vessels is heading to the waters of west Africa, drawn by corruption and weak enforcement by local governments.

West Africa now provides the vast majority of the fish caught by China’s distant-water fleet and by some estimates, as many as two-thirds of those boats engage in fishing that contravenes international or national laws, experts said.

China’s distant-water fishing fleet has grown to about 2,600 vessels (the US has fewer than one-tenth as many), with 400 boats coming into service between 2014 and last year alone.

Most of the Chinese ships are so large that they scoop up as many fish in one week as Senegalese boats catch in a year, costing west African economies US$2 billion per year, a new study published by the journal Frontiers in Marine Science said.

Many of the Chinese boat owners rely on government money to build vessels and fuel their journeys to Senegal, a month-long trip from crowded ports in China.

Overall, government subsidies to the fishing industry reached nearly US$22 billion between 2011 and 2015, nearly triple the amount spent during the previous four years, Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University research fellow Zhang Hongzhou (張宏洲) said.

That figure does not include the tens of millions in subsidies and tax breaks that coastal Chinese cities and provinces provide to support local fishing companies, he said.

According to one study by Greenpeace, subsidies for some Chinese fishing companies amount to a significant portion of their income. For one large state-owned company, CNFC Overseas Fishery Co Ltd (中水集團遠洋公司), the US$12 million diesel subsidy it received last year made the difference between profit and loss, according to a corporate filing.

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