China has the largest fishing fleet in the world at around 300,000 vessels, employing nearly eight million people, and accounts for one-third of the world’s reported fish production. Chinese boats land over 17 million tonnes of marine-life annually for human consumption.
With a population of 1.3 billion people that consume 25.8 kg of fish per annum (nearly twice the world average) and an appetite for high-status dishes comprised of endangered marine species such as abalone and shark-fin soup, it is hard to imagine a greater threat to the health of our oceans. (Chinese emperors loved shark fin soup and abalone because it was expensive, rare, tasty and difficult to prepare. The dishes are now served at weddings to show appreciation to their guests and as a show of respect and honour).
With commercial fish stocks in local waters severely depleted China’s distant water fleet now comprises of about 2,000 vessels. These boats receive subsidies to encourage them to leave coastal waters and 300 Chinese vessels have been sighted off West Africa at any one time. Instead of catching high-end fish like tuna they target smaller species like mackerel, the staple fish of local African fishermen.
This has led to accusations of Chinese fishing vessels worsening Africa’s food crisis and threatening the livelihood of poor African fishermen. Others blame the emergence of pirates in Somali waters on the depletion of fish caused by Chinese overfishing.
China’s illegal fishing has also triggered tension with other countries. Indonesia in June seized eight Chinese fishing vessels and detained 75 Chinese fishermen for illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Korea this year has seized some 150 Chinese fishing vessels for illegal fishing.
With China’s rapacious appetite for eating marine-life, a status based social structure, and a rapidly expanding middle-class population that already stands at around 80 million, the future for our global marine ecosystem looks increasingly bleak.