China’s assault on South China Sea fisheries: doing the maths
7 Feb 2019|

On 9 January 2019, the director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Gregory B. Poling, reported on China’s undocumented fishing activities in the South China Sea, suggesting that the area was being seriously overfished. The article says that ‘more than 50% of the fishing vessels in the world are estimated to operate in the South China Sea’. It also claims that, ‘The South China Sea accounted for 12 percent of global fish catch in 2015.’

The article attempts to balance the responsibility for overfishing between all states operating in the area (50% of global fishing fleets), but singles out one (‘especially China’) as the biggest overfisher in the South China Sea. Moreover, the direct link the article asserts between overfishing and China’s military occupation of the reefs, supported by supposed militia vessels, makes the clear imputation that China (along with ASEAN) is pillaging the fisheries of the South China Sea.

If true, the statistical claims are staggering, making the area more strategically significant than previously imagined by many. But there are reasons to doubt the numbers, even if the original source for these two figures appears to be a 2015 report from scholars at the Fisheries Economic Research Unit of the University of British Columbia.

The first reason for doubt is that the AMTI article links two quite separate themes: overfishing in the South China Sea (especially by China) and China’s use of boats disguised as fishing vessels to position maritime militia forces near the disputed reefs that it occupies. So the term ‘fishing vessel’ in the first half of the article is redefined midway through the analysis to mean a disguised militia boat that doesn’t do any fishing. Because the statistical claims in the article are unreferenced, the disjointed argument contributes to an impression that it’s more polemic than careful analysis.

A second reason to doubt the claims about fisheries activity is that, at face value, neither the 50% statistic nor the 12% statistic is credible if one is talking about the contested areas of the South China Sea, as the AMTI article clearly is.

China’s complement of motorised fishing vessels, reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at around 650,000 in 2016, is indeed well ahead of the second closest in the same report (Japan, at 242,000). China had an estimated 378,000 non-powered fishing vessels. Data from the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in 2016 indicates that Indonesia had a total of 568,000 fishing vessels, of which 143,000 were non-powered. China had around 378,000 non-powered fishing vessels in 2016, according to the FAO.

The FAO doesn’t provide similar figures on a consistent basis for other top fishing nations, such as India, the US, Russia and Peru. But China almost certainly has many more powered vessels than any other country, leading by a figure of hundreds of thousands.

But before jumping to any conclusion about who dominates fisheries in the contested mid-ocean areas of the South China Sea, we should note that the overwhelming majority of Chinese powered fishing vessels operate along the coastal fringes of the country, of which at least one-third (depending on how one measures it) is constituted by the South China Sea coastline of the mainland and Hainan. This littoral focus of China’s fishing fleet can be seen in data from credible sources, such as Global Fishing Watch. Another recent source reliably reports the global hotspots of fishing as the ‘northeast Atlantic (Europe) and northwest Pacific (China, Japan, and Russia) and in upwelling regions off South America and West Africa’. The South China Sea is not mentioned.

What we can say with confidence based on an all-source analysis is that up to 50% of global fishing vessels (that have been counted) are Chinese and operate off the coast of China, relatively close to its own coastline. We might assume that a third of that 50% operate in the north of the South China Sea but in uncontested maritime resource zones quite close to the mainland coast.

The argument on fishing production from the South China Sea (the second statistic mentioned above) can’t be closed on either side because available statistics are complex in how they are composed and not entirely reliable.

For 2016, the FAO reported the catch of all ASEAN countries with a coastline on the South China Sea at around 15 million tonnes, out of a global total of 93 million tonnes. The share of world output for these selected ASEAN countries was just over 16%. This compares with China’s capture fishery production of 17 million tonnes, or a global share of 19% in 2016.

The available statistics don’t allow us to know what share of those catches were in the South China Sea or the other large maritime spaces bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines outside the South China Sea. We do know, from a Chinese academic source, that four of China’s provinces bordering the South China Sea (Zhejiang, Guangdong, Hainan and Guangxi) were responsible for 50% of China’s total marine catch from all areas in 2015.

China introduced fish conservation measures in the South China Sea beginning in 1999, sometimes treading on international law to do it, so we can assume that the area is at risk of overfishing, as AMTI suggests. Helpful sources that explain the statistical complexities well and even support that conservationist argument can be found. Yet even those sources don’t address the clear imputation by AMTI: that Chinese fishing vessel activity in the mid-ocean disputed areas (as opposed to littoral areas) is on such a massive scale that it represents the main conservation threat.