Last week, the actor Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted out a link to a New York Times piece on Chinese distant-water fishing, adding an introduction of his own that firmly pointed the finger at China’s practices. “The past two decades have seen China build its deep-sea fishing fleet into the thousands, resulting in China depleting its own stock of fish in oceans closest to them,” he wrote. “In turn, their fishermen have sailed to other oceans across the world to continue deep-sea fishing. This practice has raised alarms about the impact on local economies as well as the commercial sustainability of ocean species.”
DiCaprio’s tweets to almost 20 million followers effectively mainstream the by now well-established idea that China’s fishing efforts in — or often just outside — other countries’ waters are both a kind of maritime imperialism, robbing smaller countries of natural resources that are rightfully theirs, and a key catalyst for an environmental catastrophe within oceans rapidly emptying of fish. And these points are difficult to refute.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ 2022 report into the state of world fisheries and aquaculture (fish farming) says 35 percent of monitored fishery stocks exist at biologically unsustainable levels (meaning they cannot replenish themselves). Contributing toward that, China accounted for almost 15 percent of global captures in 2020 (meaning fish caught outside of fish farms), more than the total captures of the second (Indonesia) and third (Peru) ranked countries combined. Furthermore, of the total 11.8 million tons of catch reported by China, 2.3 million tons is listed under “distant-water fishing” — defined as fishing in the high seas or in internal waters, territorial seas and the exclusive economic zones of other countries. That figure is produced alongside stories of legal and illegal fishing inside the waters of poorer countries in West and East Africa, South America and the Pacific, usually via unfair deals, as well as on the high seas.
This picture, however, leaves a lot out. China’s fishing is both worse and better than DiCaprio and The New York Times’ depiction, depending on which angles you’re looking at it from.
In the “worse” column, it needs to be said that underreporting of catch is widely accepted as a massive problem in distant-water fishing, and China is top of the IUU Fishing Index’s rankings for Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing. Topping a ranking of such activity may not carry the same visceral punch as The New York Times’ focus on ships targeting the Galapagos Islands, but it is a fuller representation of a wider trend, and a major hint that things may be worse than the U.N.’s numbers are picking up.
On top of that, there are three other issues that look bad for China. First, it defines its own territorial waters as including almost all of the South China Sea, so it is relatively easy to find studies that suggest distant-water fishing actually makes up a significantly larger portion of its total capture than the aforementioned U.N. report suggests. Second, there is some evidence that the number of Chinese distant-water fishing boats is far larger than the 3,000 figure offered by The New York Times, which is stated with an odd degree of certainty in that article given it is highly contested. And third, the whole operation would very likely not be viable without billions of dollars of Chinese government subsidies, which makes all of the damage a deliberate choice.
However, then there is also the other side to things. Per capita, the U.N.’s report shows China is not the biggest fishing nation, and perhaps more importantly it has not been close to the biggest consumer of fish. It is instead the world’s largest exporter of fish, according to the U.N. report, which means whatever it is doing is being financially endorsed by other countries. Who are those countries? Not noted by DiCaprio is the fact that the U.S. is the world’s largest importer of fish and indeed is number three on the list of countries China sells fish to, after Japan and South Korea. These facts necessarily complicate the idea of China as some lone sea monster arbitrarily chewing through the world’s oceans. And while China’s fishing practices in other countries’ waters are widely criticized, so are those of almost any heavily subsidized distant-water fleet if one actually reads the reports and data cited in the popular case made against China.
The reason these points matter is that while China clearly carries substantial responsibility for the state of the world’s oceans, tediously simplistic hit jobs that miss most of what’s happening, for better and worse, won’t feed into the international effort required to fix the problem. They’ll do the opposite. As Ryan Hass, a senior fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, recently explained, it was through sustained U.S.-led diplomacy that “China went from being a spoiler at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference to a key player in securing agreement at the Paris conference in 2015,” not antagonistic cherry-picking. That principle has to apply to distant-water fishing regulation, which is one of the most fundamentally international policy areas it is possible to conjure up.
Maybe DiCaprio can add a few extra tweets to his thread.
Image: Jean Beller, Unsplash