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China pledges to cut size of its massive fishing fleet due to serious threat to nation’s fish stocks

Overfishing in Chinese rivers and seas has seriously depleted stocks and the government is to cut the size of the nation’s fishing fleet, the agricultural ministry said.

A well-known fishermen in Tanmen, Hainan province, said local fishermen have been told not to increase their fleet while counterparts in other provinces have been told to cut the number of ships by 3 per cent.

The ministry said there were practically “no fish” in the coastal East China Sea and fishermen also had a hard time finding a catch in many other coastal waters, according to a state radio report on Sunday.

Agriculture minister Han Changfu told China National Radio that it was time to trim China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, to protect fish stocks.

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Han, the minister in charge of the fishery sector, listed a series of actions the department planned to take against the industry’s overexpansion, including cutting the number of fishing vessels.

China’s deep-sea fishing in the world’s oceans must develop under tightened regulations, supervision and self-discipline, “gradually getting rid of the outdated ways of production that are destructive to the environment,” Han said.

The minister did not provide figures for plans to cut the fishing fleet.

He said, however, that the proposals would ultimately help raise fishermen’s incomes.

The ministry says Chinese controlled seas can sustain a catch of between eight million to nine million tonnes per year, but in recent years the catch has been about 13 million tonnes.

Similar depletions have also occurred in inland waterways.

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For instance, the top four fish species now lay less than one billion eggs a year in rivers, down from about 30 billion, the radio report said, citing agricultural ministry data.

China consumes more than a third of the world’s seafood supply.

The World Bank forecasts demand for seafood in China will increase by another 30 per cent by 2030.

Many coastal provinces in China give diesel subsidies to ocean-going trawlers, helping to increase the number in operation.

As the fuel counts for more than a third of the fishing industry’s operational costs, according to some mainland media reports, the subsidies allowed the fleet’s production capacity to double between 2012 and 2014.

Poor catches in coastal waters have driven Chinese fishermen further afield, including to disputed waters near China and even as far as the Indian Ocean. Japan’s government protested earlier this month after more than 230 Chinese fishing boats and armed coastguard ships sailed into the waters near the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

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China’s strengthening of territorial claims over the South China Sea has also pushed fishermen in Hainan to go further to fish, and with government subsidies.

He Shixuan, the fisherman from Tanmen who owns five steel-hulled trawlers, said fishermen there were also affected by the policy to cut back the size of fleets.

“While our counterparts in other provinces are required to slash up to three per cent, in Hainan we’re only required to retain zero growth,” he said.

With more than 40 years’ experience at sea, He recalled how in his youth fish could be seen where you looked, but today one has to search hard for a catch.

“One third of fish in the sea has gone over the past few years,” he said. “Compared with the 1980s, fish stocks have fallen by 60 per cent.”

China has taken several steps to curb overfishing, including banning nets with extremely small holes that catch very young fish and sea creatures.

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It also imposes a three-month offshore fishing moratorium every year.

The decision to reduce the fishing fleets was “certainly a good thing to do”, but not enough, said Professor Cai Shengli, a marine biologist at the College of Fisheries and Life Science at Shanghai Ocean University.

If the government removed smaller, older boats from the fleet the industry would build bigger vessels capable of longer-distance voyages as long as Chinese consumers’ demand for seafood kept growing at a “scary pace”, Cai said.

A possible solution was to convert trawlermen to fish farmers, he said.

Some coastal provinces have established aquatic farms in fishing villages, producing a greater output than the annual catch in recent years.

This has raised hopes that China can meet demand for seafood without exhausting global fish stocks.

The downside of fish farms was the added pollution they contributed to coastal cities, plus a limited number of suitable locations.

This might lead the Chinese government to subsidise fish farms in more distant waters, such as in the South China Sea, Cai said.

Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk

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