Strategic Implications of Chinese Fisheries Development

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 16

Chinese fishery patrol vessels

With much attention focused on China’s growing naval, shipbuilding and port infrastructure developments, it is easy to forget another important dimension of China’s maritime rise: China’s status as a major global fishing power.  With a total haul of over 17 million tons in 2007, China’s take is four times that of the nearest competitor, and far exceeds the catch of Japan, the United States and other major Pacific maritime powers [1]. China’s massive fishing fleet is concentrated in the Western Pacific, but is also active now on all the world’s oceans.  This issue should foremost be evaluated in an environmental context since the world’s oceans are now under severe strain from overfishing.  Yet, there are also vital foreign policy and international security aspects to Chinese fisheries developments that can not be neglected by U.S. policymakers. Indeed, fisheries issues are a significant security concern among Chinese maritime strategists, because they fit squarely into perceived resource and sovereignty imperatives now driving current maritime development [2]. As a whole, China’s actions as the largest world fishing power can serve as an important signal for determining Beijing’s willingness to conform to global maritime norms as a “responsible maritime stakeholder.”  

During 2009, Chinese fishing vessels and fishing policies made global headlines with increasing frequency.  Beginning in March with the so-called Impeccable incident, in which a few Chinese fishing trawlers in the company of two other enforcement ships and at least one Chinese naval vessel surrounded and harassed a U.S. surveillance vessel 75 miles south of Hainan, represented one of a number of recent and similarly dangerous incidents at sea.  Shortly thereafter, China’s largest fishery enforcement vessel, Yuzheng 311, was sent on a lengthy patrol in the South China Sea following legislation by the Philippines to formalize its offshore claims to several islets in the South China Sea (China Daily, March 28).  In June, Chinese enforcement of fishery claims came under international scrutiny when Vietnam lodged a series of protests concerning alleged rough treatment of their own fishing vessels by Chinese authorities.  

According to one report, incomes of Vietnamese fishermen have declined because of “China’s stepped up [fisheries] enforcement,” in the vicinity of the Paracel Archipeligo (Agence France-Presse, June 26).  Then in late June, a major incident erupted between Beijing and Jakarta after Indonesian authorities seized eight Chinese fishing vessels and detained 75 Chinese fishermen, whom were allegedly fishing illegally in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—59 of the 75 Chinese fishermen detained were permitted to return to China in July (, July 11). Such incidents illustrate how the activities of fishing vessels and related enforcement authorities of the Western Pacific region represent one of the jagged edges of volatile maritime territorial disputes.  There is a real potential in China—and also among its neighbors—for fishing nationalism to take hold, because resources coupled with sovereignty disputes are at the heart of envigorated naval development in the East Asian region.  Unfortunately, fishing tensions could aggravate these disputes to the point of military conflict.  The potential for this nationalism is implied, for example, in one recent Chinese assessment that concludes:  “Although our country has signed one after another fishing agreements with neighboring states, the number of fishing industry security incidents involving foreigners has unceasingly increased … Some [countries] even send warships to bump and sink our side’s fishing boats …" [3].

Official figures suggest that China currently has about 297,937 motorized fishing vessels and approximately eight million fishermen.  Among finfish, Chinese are largely catching anchovy, Japanese scad, hairtail and small yellow croaker, while significant subsectors also catch shrimp, crab and squid as well.  The dominant method is trawling, though gill nets, set nets, line and hooks, as well as purse seines are also used.  The East China Sea accounts for the largest catch, followed by the South China Sea and then the Yellow Sea.  Among these sea areas, only the South China Sea region has seen increasing catches of late.  Of China’s major marine industries, marine fisheries and related industries are ranked as the largest sector.  Guangdong and Shandong are the leading provinces measured by fishing output, though Fujian and Zhejiang are close behind [4].

Similar to other fisheries worldwide, China is now confronted by a legacy of massive overfishing that left its proximate fishing grounds depleted.  As one Chinese study recently opined:  “Now, the fact is obvious that the development of our nation’s fishing industry has reached an extremely important juncture.  Most—if not all—of the fisheries have been fully exploited, and many are already exhausted” [5].  Another study, published in Marine Policy, one of the leading international academic journals on oceans policy, further reveals the scope of the problem.  Since the 1960s, fish species in the Beibu Gulf area of the South China Sea have declined from 487 to 238.  Stock density reached its lowest level in 1998 at just 16.7 percent of that in 1962, though fish stocks have recovered some in recent years [6]. Unlike most Chinese citizens, it is clear that marine fisheries in Chinese coastal areas have not benefited from the post-Deng economic boom, but rather have been the victims of rapid, loosely regulated development.
The fact that Chinese fisheries are in a state of near collapse have prompted some bold initiatives by the Beijing government, which includes a ‘zero growth’ plan for production initiated in 1999.  By 2004, 8,000 fishing vessels had been scrapped and there is an effort to bring down China’s total fishing fleet to 192,000 vessels by next year.  Summer fishing moratoriums now exist for almost all of China’s coastal areas [7].   Along China’s southern coasts alone, tens of thousands of fishermen are reportedly out of work as a consequence of the stringent limits associated with the 2000 Beibu Gulf Delimitation Agreement with Vietnam.  With respect to such agreements, one PRC expert recently observed, “[such agreements] have dramatically compressed the work space for our nation’s fishermen.  These new difficulties for our hard pressed fleets … constitute one disaster after another.  [The agreements] could touch off social instability in various coastal towns and villages” [8].  To mollify angry fishermen, the Chinese authorities have offered substantial subsidies to displaced fishermen and also supported aquaculture as a viable economic alternative to marine fisheries. Indeed, the aquaculture sector has witnessed enormous growth in China during the last decade.  One potential bright spot regarding PRC fisheries and coastal environmental protection is that China has designated a very considerable number of marine reserves along its lengthy coast [9].  Experience suggests that marine reserves may be an effective tool for recovering the health of damaged fisheries, but related enforcement measures are not especially promising to date.

Indeed, China’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), as Beijing’s major enforcement tool for fisheries management, appears to face significant challenges.  Unlike the United States and Japan, China lacks a single unified coast guard with a broad maritime enforcement mandate.  As a result, according to one PRC fisheries expert:  “Although the central government has taken steps … the results are minimal … Fisheries enforcement is congenitally deficient … The failure of fisheries management is already beyond dispute” [10].  Among the various agencies responsible for coastal management responsibilities in China, the FLEC, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Agriculture, appears to lag well behind other better funded and managed agencies, such as the Maritime Safety Administration (of the Ministry of Communications).  Recent reporting does suggest that the further development of FLEC is an increasing priority for Beijing.  Various modern methods, such as vessel monitoring systems for example, have been introduced into FLEC management practices. Nevertheless, interagency difficulties are amply evident, for example in a study written by faculty members at China’s coast guard academy in Ningbo (a part of the People’s Armed Police of the Public Security Ministry), which states:  “The fisheries enforcement department has the function of escorting fishing vessels … but are unarmed… The public security maritime police … [are] equipped with all types of weaponry … [but] because of limitations on jurisdiction can only play a supporting role, and are in an awkward position” [11].  The further development of China’s maritime enforcement capabilities, perhaps in the direction of a unified coast guard, could have profound consequences for both regional maritime governance and Chinese ability to better enforce its maritime claims in the region.

Yet, Chinese fishing fleets’ activities are much more than a regional issue.  Although China’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleet was only created in the mid-1980s, by 2006 it has grown to nearly 2,000 vessels operating on the high seas and in the EEZs of 35 countries [12].  The Chinese DWF fleet is actually supported by subsidies from the central government as part of an effort to divert Chinese fishermen out of local waters that have been fished out.  For instance, according to an authoritative source, the number of Chinese fishing vessels in West African waters at any one time could be close to 300 vessels at any given time [13].  With relatively low technology compared to European distant water fishing fleets, Chinese vessels are not pursuing prized blue fin tuna, but more likely to be fishing for mackerel and other lower value species.  Often, this fishing is legal within the EEZs of the given state, but it is precisely these fish that have previously sustained coastal fishermen around the developing world, creating the possibility that Chinese fishing practices could contribute to a food crisis in Africa and other poor countries.  Indeed, one theory informally circulating in maritime circles posits that piracy in the Gulf of Aden is actually a byproduct of overfishing by external powers, who have forced local Somali fishermen into other “careers.”  China has thus far refused to ratify the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (in force as of 2001), though it should be noted that some concrete reforms have been undertaken by Beijing to control and monitor its DWF fleet.

Beyond the potential for dislocations associated with unsustainable fishing practices, there are a number of implications of China’s major role in world fisheries for international security.  First, it is quite plausible that Beijing’s wide ranging fishing fleets offer quite extensive opportunities for enhanced “maritime domain awareness” in certain strategically sensitive sea areas, ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Central Pacific.  If China adopts a more expansive blue water naval  posture in the next decades, with an enlarged presence for in the Indian Ocean and off of Africa’s coasts for example, then these fishing fleets will have been important in developing China’s knowledge base with respect to prevailing local conditions.  Second and consistent with the Chinese tendency toward close integration of civil and military institutions, China’s large fishing fleet is already integrated into a maritime militia that could render crucial support in a hypothetical military campaign, whether ferrying troops across the Taiwan Strait or laying mines in distant locations. The sheer number of fishing vessels that could be involved would present a severe challenge to any adversary attempting to counter this strategy. Most importantly, there is the unfortunate potential that a fishing dispute involving loss of life—which happen in East Asian waters with disturbing regularity—could serve as tinder for nationalists on one side or another, provoking actual hostilities between disputing, and well-armed claimants in the region.  Finally, there is the strong likelihood that Beijing will continue to use the Chinese strategy of "defeating harshness with kindness" (yi rou ke gang) and thus deploying unarmed fishing vessels or fisheries enforcement vessels to confront foreign vessels operating in its EEZ and claimed waters.

Despite the above concerns, evolving Chinese fisheries policies could also serve as a catalyst for cooperation with other states in East Asia, as well as with Washington.  Indeed, the U.S. Coast Guard has actually been working for more than a decade in the North Pacific with the China FLEC to enforce a U.N. prohibition on drift net fishing.  This cooperation has involved FLEC personnel temporarily being assigned to U.S. Coast Guard cutters—a highly innovative form of cooperation.  Other forms of operational and scientific cooperation might address environmental, weather emergency, rescue, and enforcement aspects of fisheries management.  One further encouraging example is that fisheries are now playing a role in the important warming trend between Beijing and Taipei, itself a major fishing power.  

Indeed, this warming trend has gone a long way to calming tensions in East Asian waters of late.  China’s counter-piracy mission off the Gulf of Aden is another example of the great potential of Beijing’s positive contribution to international maritime security and stewardship.  Recent tensions in the South China Sea area should not spoil the new climate of cooperation and collective responsibility.  The evolution of Chinese fishing practices in the Pacific and around the globe will provide a useful and concrete gauge of Beijing’s intent to abide by global norms of international security and environmental sustainability as a genuine responsible, maritime stakeholder.


1. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2008 (Rome:  United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2009), p. 11 on the web at https://
2. See, for example, the discussion in Sun Jingping, Notes on Maritime Security Strategy in the New Period in the New Century, China Military Science, June 2008, p. 77.
3. Li Zhujiang (ed.), The Ocean and the Fishing Industry:  Emergency Management (Beijing:  Ocean Press, 2007), p. 299.
4. This paragraph draws upon information from “Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profiles:  China,” on the web at, and also from Li Deshui, Wang Shugang, China Marine Statistical Yearbook 2004 (Beijing:  Ocean Press, 2005), pp. XI-XVI.
5. Mu Yongtong, Fisheries Management:  Focusing on a Rights-Based Regime (Qingdao:  China Ocean University Press, 2006), p. 292.
6. Yunjun Yu and Yongtong Mu, “The New Institutional Arrangement for Fisheries Management in the Beibu Gulf,” Marine Policy 30 (2006), p. 251.
7.  “Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profiles:  China,” p. 3.
8. Mu, Fisheries Management, pp. 292-93.
9. Ma Yingjie, Research on the Legal Protection of Chinese Treasured, Rare and Endangered Marine Species (Qingdao:  China Ocean University Press, 2008), pp. 92-100.
10. Mu, Fisheries Management, p. 292.
11. He Zhonglong, Ren Xingping, Feng Shuili, Luo Xianfen, Liu Jinghong, Research on the Building of the Chinese Coast Guard (Beijing:  Ocean Press, 2007), p. 40.
12. Guifang (Julia) Xue, “China’s Distant Water Fisheries and Its Response to Flag State Responsibilities,” Marine Policy 30 (2006), p. 653.
13. Wang Ning (ed.), Handbook on Long-Distance Fishing Technology and Economy (Beijing:  Ocean Press, 2002), p. 74.