KUALA LUMPUR – Last Sunday’s sinking of an Iranian oil tanker 290 km off the coast of Shanghai certainly looks like an environmental disaster. Depending on how many of the ship’s 1 million barrels of condensate were released into the ocean and not burned off, the accident could end up being one of the biggest oil spills in half a century. The irony? Even that wouldn’t represent the biggest disaster to befall the area.
The fact is, thanks to massive overfishing in China’s territorial waters, there isn’t much marine life left to kill in the disaster zone. According to He Pemin of Shanghai Ocean University, those waters have been so denuded over the last three decades that fishermen “normally bypass the area and go further afield for a bigger catch.”
It’s a dark twist to an accident that has the potential to send oil drifting to the California coast. And it should encourage the Chinese government to rethink how it manages its marine environment. The need is urgent: China’s hunger for seafood is fast outstripping its domestic resources. Consequences already loom, including food inflation, a depleted environment for the hundreds of millions of Chinese who live along the coast and rising international tensions.
Chinese fishermen traditionally concentrated on inland and coastal waters. But as the economy opened up in the late 1970s and private fishing fleets grew in size, those areas were quickly fished out.
Seeing the industry as a jobs creator, local officials were loath to restrain it. The national government didn’t do much better. Instead of crafting policies to sustain inshore fishing (by controlling catches and combating massive coastal pollution, for starters), authorities offered subsidies and technical support to help fishermen venture further offshore into the East China Sea. (The money also supported other “blue economy” industries such as shipbuilding and offshore drilling.) In 1985, just 10 percent of China’s catch was netted in those far-flung fishing grounds; by 2000, it was 35 percent.
The shift was driven by a massive jump in China’s seafood consumption as its population has become more affluent. Growth has averaged 7.9 percent annually since the late 1970s. Chinese seafood consumption increased 50 percent in just the last decade, to 62 million tons annually. That accounts for nearly two-thirds of global growth.
China’s wild catch from its territorial waters is now around 13 million tons, up from around 3 million tons in the mid-1970s. Even China’s Ministry of Agriculture says that’s roughly 25 percent more than what’s sustainable. And it’s still not enough: China’s gone from being a seafood exporter to a seafood importer because of burgeoning demand.
In the East China Sea, once one of the world’s richest fisheries, the toll has been extreme. As far back as 2006, environmental officials declared that 81 percent of the area was badly polluted. Catches — and fishing employment — were badly down. In 2016, China’s Ministry of Agriculture declared that there were “no fish” left at all.
Though an exaggeration, there’s some truth to the statement: Recent studies have shown that massive overfishing has so depleted large predatory fish that small fish and invertebrates — many of which are inedible for humans — are all that’s left to catch. As a result, China’s fishing fleet is venturing further from home than ever, infringing on others’ traditional fishing grounds and inflaming international tensions.
To its credit, the Chinese government recognizes the problem and has undertaken several initiatives to slow the damage. Since 1995, it has implemented seasonal moratoriums in key fisheries to help stocks recover. It’s established more than 250 loosely managed Marine Protected Areas, where species are theoretically protected from fishing, and rolled back some fuel subsidies for fishing fleets. Such measures have been limited in their effectiveness, however — as moratoriums end, fishermen rush in to make up for lost time — and they’re unlikely to resuscitate the East China Sea or any other Chinese fishery.
Instead, China needs to implement structural changes in the ways that it monitors and regulates fisheries. First, China needs to establish a transparent public process for collecting and sharing data on fisheries; one doesn’t currently exist, which makes informed fisheries management nearly impossible.
Second, scientists must have equal standing with policymakers when catch limits and other such decisions are made. For too long, economics and politics have dominated the opaque process. Finally, China’s government needs to expand its Marine Protected Areas and centralize control over them. Currently, self-interested (or uninterested) local governments are in charge of enforcement, with predictable results.
It’ll take decades to restore the East China Sea to its once fruitful past. But the alternative — a body of water so badly damaged that a major oil spill might not degrade it significantly — is hardly a future that China should accept.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of the book “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”