China's Distant Water Fishing fleet is more than five times larger than estimated - new ODI report

26 May 2020

A new report from the Overseas Development Institute sheds a light on the scale, impact and governance of China’s Distant Water Fishing (DWF) fleet, released ahead of World Oceans Day on 8 June.

Report identifies China’s DWF fleet to be five to eight times larger than previous estimates, with 16,966 vessels.

Almost 1,000 Chinese DWF vessels are flagged to countries other than China, the majority of which – 518 in total – are registered in African nations where monitoring and control capacities are very limited.

At least 183 vessels in China’s DWF fleet have been found to be involved in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

China faces a greater challenge than previously realised in meeting its stated goal to reduce its DWF fleet to 3,000 vessels by 2020.

New research by the Overseas Development Institute released ahead of World Oceans Day on June 8th has found that China’s Distant Water Fleet (DWF) fleet is five to eight times larger than previous estimates, with a total of 16,966 Chinese DWF vessels identified during the study. This growth is fuelled by public subsidies and the depletion of Chinese fisheries stocks.The rapid expansion of global fishing fleets since the 1950s is believed to be a major factor behind the overfishing of more than 90% of commercial fishing stock in the world’s oceans. Depleted fish stocks particularly impact lower income countries which have traditionally been highly reliant on fishing as a food source.

While other countries are also responsible for overfishing, China is the most significant actor in the global fisheries crisis due to the sheer size and global presence of its global fishing operations. In comparison, the European Union’s DWF fleet was 289 vessels in 2014, and the United States had 225 large DWF vessels in 2015. This makes the current low levels of transparency and control over the operations of China’s DWF fleet also of particular concern.

Alfonso Daniels, co-author of the report, says:

“Millions of people particularly in poor coastal countries are directly dependent on fisheries resources for their livelihoods and food security. The discovery that China’s distant water fishing fleet is much larger than expected is alarming and should be taken as a warning sign. Global fishing fleets – not just the Chinese – need to be more transparent about their size and operations, to prevent further overfishing of already unsustainably depleted fisheries resources.”

The study identified 1,821 vessels as trawlers, many of which are suspected of carrying out bottom trawling which is a particularly destructive fishing technique. This is more than double the largest previous estimate of the number of trawlers in China’s DWF fleet.

An analysis of 5,241 fishing manoeuvres for 1,878 vessels during 2017 and 2018 found that the most frequent area of operations was the Northwest Pacific. However, the most intense operations were squid fisheries in the Southwest Atlantic and Southeast Pacific - especially off the coast of Peru.

Miren Gutierrez, co-author and Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute, says:

“There has been an extraordinary boom in China’s distant water fishing (DWF) activities, which is difficult to monitor and rein. Chinese DWF companies are left to police themselves and negotiate access to the fisheries of developing coastal states, especially in west Africa. This laxity contrasts with the European Union’s policy of reducing its fishing fleet and exerting greater control over its global operations.”

The report found that more than 90% of China’s DWF vessels fly the Chinese flag. As a flag state, China does not have a particularly strong record of engaging with the international community and complying with Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) and other obligations. Half of China’s DWF vessels are believed to operate in areas governed by RFMOs, but China has joined only seven of them. In comparison, the EU participates in 17 such organisations.

Almost 1,000 Chinese DWF vessels were found to be registered overseas - 518 were flagged to African nations. With 137 ships, Ghana has the largest registry of Chinese DWF vessels outside China, five of which appear to be in breach of the Ghanaian 2002 Fisheries Act which limits fishing licences for semi-industrial and industrial fishing vessels to those flying a Ghanaian flag. Overall, this suggests that China’s DWF is not just having an impact on local fisherman in these areas whose communities rely on fishing as a key food source but also that Chinese vessels are flagged to areas where enforcement measures are generally limited.

Additionally, 148 vessels were registered in nations commonly regarded as flags of convenience, which are routinely used by ship owners to evade taxes and regulations of their home state. This reflects the limited incentives for adopting convenience flags given the relatively lax regulation and enforcement of Chinese authorities.

The ownership and operational control of China’s DWF fleet is both complex and opaque. ODI’s analysis of a subsample of 6,122 vessels found that just eight companies owned or operated more than 50 vessels. Most vessels are owned by small and medium enterprises, many of which are subsidiaries of larger corporations. Complicated company structures and a lack of transparency hamper monitoring and regulatory efforts. This makes it difficult for those responsible for malpractice to be held accountable.

The study also found that at least 183 vessels in China’s DWF fleet are suspected of involvement in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. China is ranked as the worst-performing nation on the IUU Fishing Index, which looks at coastal, flag and port state responsibilities, among other indicators.

The report recommends that China adopt the following urgent steps to ensure that its DWF fleet operates sustainably:

Improve the registration and transparency of DWF vessels and the companies that own them.

Just ten companies own almost half of the vessels suspected of IUU fishing – if Chinese authorities can target their enforcement efforts on these companies they have a better chance of dealing with IUU fishing.

Adopt higher standards such as the ratification of the Port State Measures Agreement as a flag state.

Adopt stricter regulation and enforcement of DWF operations.

Strengthen cooperation with international agencies and other states especially in developing countries which have limited monitoring and enforcement capacity.

Globally, all countries, international bodies and agencies should upgrade capacity for monitoring, information sharing, and enforcement. They should take proactive measures to disrupt IUU stocks from entering international supply chains, and support governance capacity in developing coastal states.

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For further information or to interview the researchers please contact Charlotte Howes at ODI on +44 7808 791 265 or at [email protected].

Notes to Editors

About the Research

Miren Gutiérrez, Alfonso Daniels, Guy Jobbins, Guillermo Almazor Gutiérrez, César Montenegro are researchers at the Overseas Development Institute in the Climate and Sustainability team.

About the Overseas Development Institute

ODI is an independent, global think tank, working for a sustainable and peaceful world in which every person thrives. We harness the power of evidence and ideas through research and partnership to confront challenges, develop solutions and create change.

About the methodology

This study is based on information from the Krakken® database (FishSpektrum, 2018) and automatic identification system (AIS) data for 2017 and 2018, analysed employing big data analytic techniques, ensemble algorithms and geographic information systems (GISs).

Krakken® is the world’s largest database on fishing vessels, using unique vessel identifiers (UVIs). Krakken® accounts for some 1.5 million historical references representing more than 800,000 vessels. This data was then combined with automatic identification system (AIS) data for 2017 and 2018 provided by Vulcan Skylight.