29 April 2016

Something smells fishy along the West African coast

Monica writes:*

The world is experiencing an overfishing crisis, one-third of which can be blamed on China (pdf). Nevertheless, the Chinese demand for fishing products keeps increasing as Chinese consumers are switching from grain-based diets to animal proteins. In combination with the pursuit of economic interest of fishermen and fishing companies, a new growth policy was implemented in 2010. The growth policy is supported by generous fuel subsidies, which aim to expand the sector even more. This is a surprise to many since the country experienced a zero-growth period between 2000 and 2010 (see figure 1). At that time, policies were implemented to halt further damages to local fishery grounds caused by overfishing and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawlers.

Figure 1. China’s Annual Marine Catch Production
Does this mean their fishing grounds have recovered? No. The species found in local fishing grounds merely exist in name. China's fleets are expanding into many foreign Exclusive Economic Zone’s (EEZ’s). Especially Chinese Distant Water Fishing (DWF) along the coast of West Africa has increased since the start of the first dispatch fleet in 1985 to 230 in 2015. This is problematic since China did not learn from its mistakes and is transferring its bad fishing practices to this part of the world. Bad fishing practices are estimated to cause the same effects along the West African coast since 50% of the resources are “overfished” (pdf). Furthermore, China is only reporting 8% or less of its catch from these waters (total of 368,000 tons per year) to the FAO. The actual estimated catch of 3.1 million tons per year shows that by underreporting its catch, China is avoiding licensing fees.

Why are West African nation’s not doing enough to avoid the depletion of their coastal fisheries? First, due to the difficulty of detecting Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing practices. Second, the West African coast is known as "the Wild West" of the sea where law enforcement is weak. But more importantly, West African nations have a high economic dependence on the Chinese DWF agreements that are in place. The legal DWF are nonetheless impactful since China’s licensed footprint is twice the size of the entire DWF fleet of the United States. As West African countries are still developing, they depend on licensing money and aid packages. For example, in Mauritania, DWF fees make up 27% of the total national budget. This means that if they are too harsh on overfishing and/or harmful fishing practices, they could face severe economic consequences.

Governments from China and West African countries need to understand that fishing unsustainably for economic interest will harm their countries in the long run. As the West African waters are also depleting, it will not take long before Chinese DWF will lose their jobs or will have to find other fishing grounds to deplete. Also, West African nations will lose the rent they collect from selling fishing licensing as well as their profitable fishing industry, thereby destabilizing their economies even more.

Bottom Line China and West African nations have both created dependencies on marine resources. From past experience, China should take the responsibility and start changing is fishing practices. Short term gains over less developed countries in West Africa will backfire. Without West-African nation’s capacity to intervene, soon one of the most fertile fishing grounds of the world will be gone.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.


  1. China's illegal fishing is also a big problem for S. Korean fisherman. S. Korea does not have any agreements with Chinese government and does not depend on their seafood product. But, EZZ hardly performs its role since there exists no actual fence on the sea. S. Korean and Chinese maritime police are working together on cracking down the illegal fishers with harsh measures, but they just continue to do so and fight back. Likewise, there was an incident of Argentinian maritime police shooting down Chinese illegal fishing vessels; but the problem continues. The question then arises as to what situation Chinese fishermen face. What governs their decision-making process might provide a possible solution at a fundamental level. I do not know much of anything about the circumstances they are under, but newly appeared origin mark P.R.C. might be a lead. Lots of processed food are now being imported under the certificate of origin as 'product of P.R.C', which stands for product of People's Republic China. This implies that maybe the factor driving demand (consequently driving supply) is from foreign market. Controlling actual fishing activity can be very difficult without the fence, and other problems will appear unless the fundamental problem is resolved. On this matter, I think it is important to understand the real cause of excessive demand. Only then, we will be able to come up with a true solution.

  2. Thanks for the comment! You are right in saying that the foreign market is an important factor in the demand. China seeks to become a global maritime player, not only to fulfil domestic demand for fish, but also to increase their economic growth. Thus, by supplying a larger public, this creates a circle of interdependence... A possible solution could be for foreign consumers to demand certified labels on their products, insuring the fish are caught sustainably and in a save environment!


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