A bigger catch: China’s fishing fleet hunts new ocean targets
Seagulls wheel and cry around the Caleta Portales fishing pier in the Chilean port of Valparaíso while sea lions loiter in the waves. The fishermen hoist their boats out of the water, untangle a paltry catch from their nets and trudge off for a political strategy meeting in a dark room lit only by a PowerPoint presentation.
Nearby, a line of white banners bear a defiant message in red block letters: “NO to industrial squid trawling!”
Until two decades ago, these Chilean fishermen would not have bothered with squid. The prize then was mackerel and hake. Squid were considered dangerous because of the amount of water (and occasional sea lion) they bring up with the nets, enough to destabilise a boat in heavy waves. Poor families in Valparaíso ate enchiladas stuffed with loco, an abalone-like shellfish, sold from carts on street corners.
The sea has changed, however. Overfishing is threatening once plentiful resources, and the communities that depended on them. Squid is just the latest and one of the last resources in the oceans to be exploited by humans.
International politics is also intruding in the market. Helped by generous subsidies from Beijing, Chinese industrial fishing fleets are travelling further and further from their depleted home waters to find fish and squid, leading to growing tension with even friendly countries such as Argentina.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated last summer that 90 per cent of the commercial fish stocks it tracks have been overfished or fully fished, including the world’s 10 most commercially productive species.
“We are fishing deeper and further into the ocean,” says marine biologist Edgardo Fuentes of Universidad Austral de Chile. “As one species disappears, we are overfishing the next.”
Chilean loco, overharvested for export in the 1980s, almost disappeared. By the late 1990s, the country’s fishermen were catching eight times more than the recommended level of mackerel. Worldwide mackerel stocks went into free fall from 2006. Stocks of other species have also declined rapidly.
For the older fishermen in Valparaíso, hake was their livelihood. The white fish was a mainstay of Chile’s exports, until overfishing caused stocks of the species to collapse early this century. “These days there are very few hake. Not all the boats are working,” laments Juan Gómez, who at 64 is mostly retired from fishing but remains the unofficial poet of the wharfs. “I am in love with the sea, I am a fisherman’s son. It’s hard to work for other things.”
Squid is taking the place of declining stocks. In Valparaíso, artisanal fishermen operating out of Caleta Portales rely on squid for about half of their income. And the carts now sell enchiladas stuffed with squid, which locals call loco de los pobres, or “poor man’s loco”.
Even Corpesca, the nation’s largest fishing conglomerate, has moved into the game. Chilean fishermen were outraged in 2012 when the revised fisheries law gave Corpesca a permanent quota for 20 per cent of the squid catch.
“Other species have collapsed so these ships and technology are being applied to squid,” Mr Fuentes says. “Squid is becoming a new option.”
The emergence of squid as a commercially important species traces the decline of more popular fish. Fishermen like Mr Gómez blame squid for eating the hake. Not so, says Ian Scott, an independent fisheries consultant: “The counter-argument is that overfishing of many stocks left a ‘gap’ in the ecosystem that was filled by jumbo squid.”
Fishing statistics can be difficult to pin down. Where it is regulated, fishermen tend to under-report catches to bypass quotas. On the open ocean, no one counts. And corporations in China, which accounts for about 18 per cent of the world’s fish caught in the wild, sometimes over-report their catch to meet Beijing’s output growth targets and compete for subsidies.
Squid now accounts for more than half of the Chinese fleet’s catch outside its home waters. What the Chinese boats catch, the world eats. Half of the fish caught by Chinese fishermen in international waters is re-exported, to Europe, north Asia and America.
The FAO estimates that squid made up 6 per cent of world fish trade in 2013, while Chinese estimates imply that is closer to 9 per cent. The two most commonly caught species of squid together ranked 11th among top types of fish caught from 2003-2012; by 2014 squid had moved up to the seventh most caught species.
Scientists know relatively little about squid. Sonar bounces off them differently to schools of fish, making it harder to map their population. Numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year, possibly due to the El Niño weather cycle. Warming oceans may have expanded the geographic area where squid are found. They eat anything, even each other.
Could stocks of squid collapse too? Some argue that squid are uniquely protected from the cycle of overfishing because of their short lifespans.
“Squid die anyway within a year and a half, so the resource is relatively stable,” says Hu Shibao, president of CNFC Overseas Fisheries Co, a unit of China’s largest state-owned fishing conglomerate. “We can anticipate how the market will be, and calculate the catch.”
But squid are not immune to overfishing. Depleted resources in waters east of Siberia have pushed the Chinese fleet as far as Patagonia. Longer voyages have driven an expansion in capacity. “Volumes are big in South America. We need big volumes to make it worth it because the costs are high,” Mr Hu says.
Stocks of Argentine shortfin squid have begun fluctuating sharply, leading the local fishermen to complain that Chinese boats sitting just outside their waters monopolise the catch.
Meanwhile part of the Chinese fleet has shifted to Peru and Chile to seek jumbo flying squid, an important Peruvian export. It does not taste as good but Chinese processors have found a way to mask the difference. Last March, the Argentine Coast Guard fired on and sank a Chinese fishing boat in its territorial waters.
Fishing friction is not limited to squid. In the South China Sea, the Philippines and Indonesia regularly intercept Chinese boats. And Japan and China are at odds over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known in Chinese as the Diaoyu, or “fishing”, islands.
The dynamics of overfishing and squid are best understood half a world away from Valparaíso in Zhoushan, the archipelago in eastern China that is home to 70 per cent of China’s squid fishing fleet. The islands stretch into what was once one of the world’s richest fishing zones, where the muddy waters of Hangzhou Bay meet the East China Sea just south of Shanghai.
“The resource collapse was particularly striking here,” says Chen Wei, vice-director of the Zhoushan Commodity Exchange Centre. In a sign of the times his echoingly empty new building was established to help cash-strapped warehouses pay the boats laden with fish, and keep Zhoushan’s processing factories in business.
“In recent years because the fish have retreated we became the centre for overseas fishing. Because it was a big fishing area in the past processing is very developed, so that’s how Zhoushan became the main place for squid processing.”
Zhoushan’s squid crown is challenged by the northern port of Qingdao, China’s largest fish processing centre. Factories around Qingdao borrowed heavily and expanded to process white fish fillets for export to Europe, only to find their margins threatened by overcapacity. They too are switching to squid as the supply of white fish falters.
“They have bigger plants but we have the integrated chain: boats, processing and exports,” Mr Chen says.
Beijing is worried that the collapse of local fisheries will trigger job losses at fish processing plants in coastal communities like Zhoushan. But its response has added to the pressure on global resources. Strict seasonal fishing bans along the Chinese coast (this year’s is the broadest ever) are offset with subsidies — for diesel, shipbuilding and expanded seafood processing industrial zones — that push the Chinese fleet into international waters.
The subsidies have enabled an “unhinged” growth in China’s deep-
water fishing capacity, Greenpeace said in a 2016 report. It concludes that the Chinese industry has expanded “far beyond its means”.
Like the fishermen of Valparaíso, Zhoushan villagers did not particularly care about squid before the 1970s. Then China ended its experiment with communal fishing co-operatives and families returned to the sea to make a living in the new market economy. Stocks of yellow croaker, crab and cuttlefish in the East China Sea declined swiftly.
As stocks in nearby waters dwindled, Zhoushan’s fishing families banded together to invest in bigger boats. They chased migrating croaker north to the cold waters east of Vladivostok, where they found squid. Clashes with Korean and Japanese ships prompted one of China’s first maritime agreements, demarcating overlapping economic zones in the 1990s following the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
By that time, the Japanese flying squid favoured in north Asia cooking was under strain. Zhoushan bosses invested in even bigger ships, capable of longer voyages. They paid for their sons to stay in school and contracted farmers from poor inland regions to man the boats.
As voyages became more expensive boat owners pooled their resources to form companies like Ningtai Ocean, China’s largest private fishing company with 60 boats. Others funded enormous transport ships, so the fishing fleet can stay out for two years.
Chinese boats can range so far because of a tenfold increase in diesel subsidies between 2006 and 2011, after which Beijing stopped releasing statistics, according to the Greenpeace report.
“If it weren’t for the diesel subsidy under these conditions most fishermen would fold,” says Wang Zhongxiao, head of Ningtai Ocean. “Before, conditions were better and we were profitable without the subsidies. Now, we need them.” Zhoushan today has been overtaken by the strange logic of Chinese overcapacity: if you have too much of something, build more.
Exhibit A is Zhoushan’s new Rmb5.6bn ($823m) “national port”, built to accommodate its much larger ocean-going vessels. Nearby processing factories are being upgraded and their facilities expanded. The new port is tasked with offloading 1m tonnes of seafood a year by 2020, more than double the region’s current haul.
Competition from other large new ports planned along the Chinese coast means Zhoushan’s new port is still far from reaching its goal, laments Lin Zhigang, deputy head at the port construction headquarters. His solution? Bring in more fish and squid from faraway seas. “Everyone has to eat, and now eats more and more. So the resources have to come.”
Additional reporting by Luna Lin