China and Overfishing

When you consider the crimes of the People’s Republic of China, you probably don’t think of overfishing as one of them. But this might be one of the most devastating and long-lasting international crises to come out of Beijing. There’s plenty of fish in the sea? Not for much longer if the Chinese government keeps having its way.

All told, three billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Given that this is nearly half of the world’s population, the need to carefully manage the world’s supply of fish is absolutely crucial for global stability. A hungry nation is a desperate nation and desperate nations take desperate measures to feed themselves.

China is, far and away, the world’s biggest offender when it comes to overfishing. This isn’t just a crime of omission -- failing to adequately control its fishermen -- but a crime of commission: China prioritizes subsidies for overfishing above subsidies for conservation. The powerhouse spent a whopping $7.2 billion in 2018 alone on fishing. This represents approximately 21 percent of all fishing subsidies worldwide and came at the expense of a 73 percent drop in beneficial subsidies.

Overfishing isn’t environmental alarmism. It is a demonstrable problem in the world’s food supply that has potentially catastrophic consequences. There is overfishing going on at biologically unsustainable levels, meaning that fish are harvested faster than they can reproduce. Pacific bluefin tuna has seen a massive 97 percent drop in its overall population levels.

The problem isn’t that there won’t be any tuna to eat anymore, though that would certainly be an issue. The problem is the ecological niche the bluefin tuna occupies. This animal is one of the most important predators in the ocean, helping to maintain the delicate balance of aquaculture.

Of course, any time we talk about China, we also must talk about slave labor, and fishing is no exception. Not only is China one of the main offenders when it comes to slavery at sea, but it is also this use of bonded labor that enables the overfishing in which China is engaged. The degree of overfishing that China is responsible for is almost entirely impossible without a massive labor force working impossible hours for little or no pay.

Chinese overfishing violates the sovereignty of its neighbors. The PRC sends its fleets out to North Korean fishing waters, which has numerous nefarious effects on international fishing. First, it makes it harder for North Korea to feed its people, something with which the Hermit Kingdom already struggles. But this has also led to a disturbing decline in the overall squid population of the region, to the tune of 70 percent. All told, there were 700 Chinese vessels fishing illegally in North Korean waters in violation of UN sanctions. North Korean fishermen are dying because of this.

The PRC is fully aware of what it’s doing, as evidenced by its attempts to conceal its overfishing. Indeed, no one is entirely sure how big the Chinese fishing fleet is. Estimates range from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing vessels. Either way, it’s about half of the fishing activity in the world. The Chinese government claims that its distant water fishing fleet is around 2,600, but independent estimates place the number much closer to 17,000. The Chinese take pains to conceal the number of vessels they have operating, doing what they can to conceal them from satellites.

Perhaps worst of all, much of the intensive ocean farming that the Chinese carried out isn’t even in the name of feeding people. Instead, it’s to meet the demands of the Chinese folk medicine market. For example, the Chinese trawlers overfish the endangered totoaba fish, not because anyone wants to eat it, but because believers in Chinese folk medicine think that the fish’s bladder has medicinal properties, a belief that, like most Chinese folk medicine beliefs, is extremely dubious. In the name of traditional medicine, they’ve hunted the rhino to near extinction for its horn and they’re on their way to depriving future generations of the totoaba fish.

While the ecological implications of China’s overfishing are troubling, there are other issues, such as the near-total control of the world’s supply of squid. Whether one cares for squid or not is hardly the point. The issue is that a large portion of the world relies upon squid as a major source of protein. China controls this protein source and is not managing it wisely, which also gives China massive leverage over the world’s protein supply.

With a staggering population to feed, it would be somewhat surprising if China did not have a massive fleet at their disposal trying to keep everyone in adequate protein. The issue is not this, but that China takes from the seas, not some arbitrary amount beyond a supposed “fair share,” but rather more than is sustainable in the truest sense of the word: China takes more from the ocean than can ever possibly replace itself.

This need not be viewed through the cynical lens of “green” politics to be disturbing. It is a threat to global stability and also violates the basic Christian view of proper stewardship of the earth’s resources. Those concerned with what the world will look like once it has been left to their children and grandchildren should be as concerned about overfishing as they are about deforestation, desertification, acidification, and other demonstrably catastrophic environmental impacts.

People who share such concerns must necessarily begin by looking at who is causing the problem. This road leads quickly and directly to the People’s Republic of China, a rogue state by any definition of the word, with little regard for the welfare of its own people and even less regard for the welfare of the planet’s oceans.

IMAGE: A Chinese squid fishing boat in North Korean waters. NBC video screengrab.

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