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Chinese and International Public Perceptions of China’s Fishing Fleets in West Africa

KAMBOU SIA / AFP

This article was written collectively by the following China House Student Fellows: Ma Chenrui 马辰睿, 19, Zhengzhou University; Huang Rui 黄蕊, 20, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University; Zhang Ruoxuan 张若璿, 21, Jilin University and Xu Danlin 徐丹林, 30.

Is Sino-African fishing cooperation “mutually beneficial” or are China’s fishing fleets “taking all of West Africa’s fish”?

Most Chinese domestic media have been optimistic about China-Africa fishing cooperation. They actively promote the economic benefits the cooperation brings while encouraging more Chinese fishing companies to establish cooperative ties in West Africa. African media and other foreign media are paying closer attention to Chinese fishing fleets’ potential illegal practices and are concerned for West Africa’s marine ecology.

Exploration: Chinese and Foreign Perspective on China-Africa Fishing Cooperation

The number of Chinese offshore fishing vessels is staggering. In 2017, the number of Chinese fishing vessels grew to 2,491 ships. According to the reported number of catches, Chinese fleets have an annual catch of over 2 million tons, accounting for nearly half of all ocean fishing in the world. Chinese fishing fleets have left their marks in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Antarctic waters.

In China, the media mainly maintain an optimistic attitude towards Sino-African fishing cooperation, considering it to be a mutually-beneficial engagement.

Africa was the first region with which China developed fishing cooperation. The first fleet of thirteen Chinese fishing boats set off for the West African waters in March 1985. Since then, during the annual fishing season, the Chinese fishing fleet has brought back large catches from the Atlantic Ocean, supplying both Chinese domestic and European markets.

According to the “China Fishery Statistical Yearbook”, China has less than 10 fishing projects in Asia and South America, but as many as 16 in Africa. China currently has nearly 20 fishing cooperative ties in Africa, with more than 500 fishing vessels and an annual production of roughly 300,000 tons. Currently, China holds cooperative ties with approximately five corporations by West African countries. Africa, particularly West Africa, has become one of China’s major operating grounds for offshore fishing.

Such cooperation provides ample supply to the Chinese domestic market while also contributing to the African economy. Therefore, Chinese media believe that large-scale Sino-African fishing cooperation is a manifestation of “mutual development”.

However, in 2015, facing Green Peace’s allegations of illegal fishing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei simply denied the claims, indicating that Chinese fishing fleets had obtained fishing permits. This demonstrates China’s understanding of China-Africa fishing cooperation remains at the economic level of commercial cooperation and port facility construction.

Examining the near-50 domestic news reports on this topic from the past few years,  it is not difficult to realize that China’s offshore fishing development prior to 2014 was far from perfect. Needless to mention the lack of media attention. 80% of publications were reported between 2014-2019.

Between 2014-2019, mainstream media such as People’s Daily and China News Service continued to broadcast the positive effects of China’s offshore fishing in West Africa, emphasizing the “going out” and “opening-up” strategic reform and cooperation. Other influential media, such as The Paper and Ta Kung Pao, were raising realistic concerns on the negative effects of China’s offshore fishing. 

At the same time, it can be seen that as China develops its offshore fishing industry, the trend of the Chinese media reporting style has also shifted.

In 2014 and 2015, China’s offshore fishing industry encountered the stage of expansion and development. While domestic public opinion can recognize the issues of the industry, most of these problems and their potential solutions relied on transforming the internal framework of the industry.  

In 2016, negative commentaries reached a high. The words “illegal fishing” appeared frequently.

In 2017-2019, the proportion of positive content rose again. 60% of Chinese media responded to ongoing issues, detailing that efforts have been intensified and the prospects are very bright.

In 2016, the “13th Five-Year Plan for National Oceanic Fisheries Development (2016-2020)” proposed that by 2020, the total number of fishing vessels will be stabilized around 3,000 vessels, and the professionalization, standardization, and modernization of fishing vessels will be significantly improved.

From the “Fishery Law of the People’s Republic of China” of 1986 to the “Revised Draft of the Ocean Fishery Regulations” of 2019; we can see that China is strengthening the management of offshore fisheries and fulfill its international obligations. This is exemplified by the keywords such as “adapting to international management requirements,” “increasing the penalties for violations,” “strengthening security and foreign-related management,” and “combing the administrative approval process”.

Under the influence of international public opinion, China is establishing an information system for illegal fishing vessels to combat illegal fishery activities. It is doing so by developing professional literacy and protecting the interests of enterprises through fishery financial support services and local security policies.

However, the implementation of these marine resource protection and illegal fishing boat activities need to be more transparent.

From the previous article, we can see that in the international public opinion, the image of China-Africa fishing cooperation and the Chinese fishing fleet is biased and slightly negative.

Before 2015, foreign media marginally affirms the economic benefits and employment opportunities cultivated by China-Africa fishing cooperation while mainly addressing the problem of overfishing and concerns over the increasing demand for fish in the Chinese market. Since 2016, affirmative discourses have lessened and criticisms on illegal fishing increased. Saiko fishing in Ghana, a distinct form of fishing cooperation, was a target of criticisms.

According to the definition of the Environmental Justice Foundation, saiko fishing refers to illegal offshore fish transferring. Foreign fishing boats pack the catch and sell it to local under-harvest canoes offshore, who then sell the fish to the local market at a higher price. Foreign fishing vessels that participate in saiko fishing often use the IUU fishing method. IUU fishing stands for illegal, unreported, unregular fishing methods.

Image taken from a video released on the South African government’s official website on March 6, 2019

The picture shows the Chinese fishing boat carrying the refrigerated fish from the high seas.

According to information provided by foreign media, these illegal fishing activities carried out by Chinese fishing boats in African waters have directly harmed African resources and economic development.

The immediate damage is the fish sources in various African waters. Private independent media Mongabay announced that overfishing, mainly by Chinese and South Korean vessels, has led to a sharp decline in Sierra Leone’s fish sources. Therefore, the Ministry of Fisheries of the country stopped major fishing domestic companies from exporting between April 1 and 30 this year and implemented a one-month fishing ban.

The large amounts of fish caught and the subsequent export have not brought considerable economic benefits to African countries. In Ghana, for example, Professor Wisdom Akpalu, president of the African Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, said that Ghanaian fishermen can only earn about 5% of the income of Chinese fishermen. Ghanaians’ own catch from the sea can only meet approximately 41%-42% of domestic needs.

More damaging is its impact on the livelihood of African locals.

Labor rights in fishing are sometimes not guaranteed. The independent non-profit organization Stop Illegal Fishing reported that Namibia, with the support and help of the Norwegian government, began implementing the Ocean Observer program in 2002 and is now able to effectively monitor more than 70% of vessels interacting with Namibian vessels.

Ocean Observer consists of appointed staff members from African governments to supervise foreign fishing vessels. Their duties are to record and report the quantity, size, and age of the catches, as well as the location of capture, fishing method, and any discarded items. In addition to Namibia, incidents of bribery, threats and even disappearances of observers from other countries have occurred.

Not only observers but also the ship’s workers face personal safety threats. Foreign fishing vessels have long-term operations where refrigeration, packaging, and transferring all take place on deck. Workers have very limited water and food to replenish from high-intensity work. Furthermore, they cannot receive adequate medical assistance when they are injured or sick. Some are even subjected to violence.

Image taken from a section of the BBC report on March 27, 2019
Interview video of Chinese fishing boats in the waters near Sierra Leone
The picture shows the place where the workers in the fishing boat rest.

The illegal fishing of foreign fishing vessels may also make Somali pirates even more rampant. Turkish International News Channel reported on March 12, 2019, that the Somali government issued 31 fishing licenses/permits to 150 Chinese companies in 2018. This incident fueled public concern. In 2005, excessive fishing by foreign boats in the Somali waters affected the lives of local fishermen. Many unemployed fishermen began to attack foreign merchant ships and some incidents even escalated into piracy. Many are about worried about their recurrence as a result of the arrival of the Chinese fleet.

African Media Are More Concerned About Regulating Foreign Fishing.

Most African countries allow trawling. However, it is prohibited for two boats to be 400-500 meters apart and dragging a 10 meters high net. This method is called trawling, which can generate large catches that can cause rapid, large-scale consumption of resources. Kadijatu Jalloh, head of the fisheries department in Sierra Leone, told reporters that there may be trawling fishing, but no reports were received from the ombudsman. Without evidence, they cannot enforce regulations.

According to a survey by the African non-profit organization ISS, after banning fishing as well as the exportation of fish, Sierra Leone’s fishing industry is still in crisis. The Chinese fleet still illegally over-fish. These incidents were reported by a few ombudsmen or local fishermen who refused to accept bribes.

Not only is the Sierra Leone government facing regulatory difficulties. According to the description of the organization Stop Illegal Fishing, the aforementioned saiko fishing method is a highly systematic process, mostly carried out in the high seas, which is a difficult region for African governments to monitor and regulate.

Consideration: Challenges From Comparison

We can see that the descriptions and opinions on fishing are different between Chinese and foreign media. Chinese domestic media are optimistic, analyzing the series of benefits brought by offshore fishing from the dimensions of industry construction and economic interests. There are also some voices that point out the insufficiencies. Most foreign media have seen the ecological and social implications brought about by offshore fishing, usually from the perspective of the destination country.

Therefore, there may be insufficient information transmitted in each step fishing process.

Excessive fishing and illegal fishing by some fleets have not been prioritized and investigated by many Chinese media. Foreign media’s understanding and interpretation of China-Africa fishing cooperation can also be influenced by different actors involved. China should indeed pay attention to the economic implications, marine resource depletion, and environmental impact of fishing in West Africa.

At the same time, fleet problems cannot be ignored. The scale of China’s fleets is constantly expanding under state subsidies, but there are still many areas where laws and regulations need to be improved. For example, though the number of ships have been quantified, the maximum volume of ships has not been.

There are also illegal fishing practices that are repeatedly prohibited despite the enforcement of laws and regulations. Although China understands and has established regulations on fishing and fleets, the regulations have not been revised and updated since 2004. Many constraints are no longer applicable. As African governments encounter difficulties in supervising foreign fishing vessels, we hope that China can improve its own management system and monitor illegal activities of Chinese vessels abroad.

The lack of trust has also hindered fishing cooperation between China and Africa. Local public opinion in Africa and other foreign media have doubts on Chinese fleets, and it is necessary for Chinese fleets to strengthen their management and be transparent when appropriate.

The information obtained by Chinese consumers are also not comprehensive, and we know very little about African fishing resources in recent years.

I hope that every reader, through reading this article, will pay closer attention to the sustainable use of fishing resources and increase their awareness of environmental protection.

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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