It's up to China to save Asia's oceans

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ADAM MINTER news­room@mm­times.com

OVER­FISH­ING and pol­lu­tion have so de­pleted China’s own fish­ery re­sources that in some places – in­clud­ing the East China Sea – there are vir­tu­ally “no fish” left, ac­cord­ing to re­ports in Chi­nese state me­dia last week.

That’s a fright­en­ing prospect for an in­creas­ingly hun­gry coun­try: China ac­counted for 35 per­cent of the world’s seafood con­sump­tion in 2015. Seek­ing catches fur­ther afield – in­clud­ing in In­done­sian wa­ters – isn’t re­ally a so­lu­tion; fish stocks in the dis­puted South China Sea have them­selves fallen by as much as 95pc from 1950s lev­els. If China doesn’t want the rest of Asia’s fish­eries to suf­fer the same fate as its own, it’s go­ing to have to think much more am­bi­tiously about how to cre­ate a sus­tain­able food sup­ply for the re­gion.

As in other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, China’s as­cent up the in­come lad­der has been ac­com­pa­nied by an im­prove­ment in qual­ity and quan­tity of diet. Seafood – once a pricey lux­ury in much of the coun­try – has be­come com­mon­place even in­land; China is now the world’s big­gest seafood con­sumer and ex­porter. The eco­nomic im­pact has been ex­tra­or­di­nary. Be­tween 1979 and 2013, China’s fleet of mo­torised fish­ing ves­sels grew from 55,225 to 694,905 boats, while the num­ber of peo­ple em­ployed in the fish­ing in­dus­try ex­ploded from 2.25 mil­lion to more than 14 mil­lion. Mean­while, the av­er­age fish­er­man’s in­come in­creased from around US$15 per month to nearly $2000 per month. To­day, the fish­ing in­dus­try gen­er­ates more than $260 bil­lion an­nu­ally, ac­count­ing for around 3pc of Chi­nese GDP.

But in pur­su­ing growth – and catch – at all costs, China’s fish­er­men have ex­acted a ter­ri­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal toll. To­day, the Yangtze River, which sup­plies 60pc of China’s fresh­wa­ter catch, pro­duces less than one-quar­ter of the fish it did in 1954, and most of the 170 species in the river are on the verge of ex­tinc­tion. The situation is no bet­ter off­shore. The gov­ern­ment ac­knowl­edges that Chi­nese fish­er­men rou­tinely ex­ceed an­nual sus­tain­able catch lim­its in Chi­nese ter­ri­to­rial seas by 30pc or more. A visit to any Chi­nese seafood mar­ket will turn up large in­ven­to­ries of un­der-sized fish that should never have been hauled in in the first place.

Blame for this state of af­fairs falls on both the fish­ing in­dus­try and the gov­ern­ment, which spent $6.5 bil­lion on fish­eries sub­si­dies in 2013 alone. Nearly all of that money paid for cheap fuel that al­lowed and ar­guably en­cour­aged Chi­nese fish­er­men to ven­ture fur­ther from shore, of­ten into the com­par­a­tively un-plun­dered ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zones of coun­tries such as In­done­sia. Worse, the Chi­nese mil­i­tary has openly abet­ted those ef­forts by sub­si­dis­ing ev­ery­thing from ice to GPS on Chi­nese fish­ing boats. The goal: to so­lid­ify China’s claim to “his­tor­i­cal fish­ing rights” in the vast and deeply con­tested South China Sea.

Chi­nese reg­u­la­tors are fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle against these other wings of the gov­ern­ment. In 1999, China im­posed a sea­sonal fish­ing ban in the South China Sea, and in 2002 reg­u­la­tors did the same in sec­tions of the Yangtze River. But the con­tin­ued de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of both fish­eries only un­der­scores how in­ef­fec­tive those re­stric­tions have been. In re­sponse, in 2013 one Chi­nese sci­en­tist pro­posed an out­right 10-year mora­to­rium on fish­ing in the eco­nom­i­cally es­sen­tial Yangtze. This week, Chi­nese of­fi­cials sig­nalled they were open to the idea and were even con­sid­er­ing a whole­sale culling of China’s fish­ing fleet.

While both mea­sures would be a boon to Asia’s fish­eries, they’re only a start. To make a real dif­fer­ence, China would need to de­mil­i­tarise its fish­ing fleets and end the ru­inous mil­i­tary­funded fuel sub­si­dies that are en­cour­ag­ing un­reg­u­lated catches, not to men­tion rais­ing geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sions. Fish­ing fleets should be reg­u­lated by civil­ian ma­rine and agri­cul­tural au­thor­i­ties, not gen­er­als with lit­tle in­ter­est in en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity.

Equally im­por­tant, China should ex­plic­itly link the task of re­viv­ing and pre­serv­ing fish­eries to the clean wa­ter and other en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives in its eco­nomic plan­ning doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment’s five-year plans. Do­ing so would raise them to a na­tional priority akin to clean­ing up Bei­jing’s air.

Those pri­or­i­ties could then be ex­tended to trade agree­ments, in­clud­ing the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (RCEP) China is cur­rently ne­go­ti­at­ing with other Asian na­tions, as well as bi­lat­eral deals with other claimants in the South China Sea. The goal should be to make China a leader – and per­haps even a brand – in sus­tain­able seafood. With luck, that would buy China not just more fish to eat, but a rep­u­ta­tion as a re­spon­si­ble global cit­i­zen. – Bloomberg

Photo: EPA

A small fish­ing fleet pre­pares to set sail from Qing­dao, China.

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