China Targets Distant-Water Criminals With New Fisheries Law

frozen tuna are transferred from the Hung Hwa 202 to the Hsiang Hao, a Panama-flagged reefer, in the middle of the Atlantic (Image: Tommy Trenchard / Greenpeace)

Published Jan 23, 2020 7:51 PM by Dialogue Earth

[By Zhang Chun]

As China’s distant-water fishing fleet has grown considerably over the past 20 years, so too has the challenge of overseeing its operations. While the majority of distant-water vessels do not break the law, the remoteness of their operations nonetheless enables IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated) fishing to persist, robbing coastal nations of resources and hampering efforts to make the fishing industry sustainable.

The introduction of new tools like blacklisting in 2020 will likely be key to managing Chinese distant-water fishing.

Two years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture added several fishing company officials and boat captains to its blacklist. Resulting sanctions for the firms included the removal of subsidies and bans on distant-water operations. Some captains were banned entirely from the fishing industry. One such was the skipper of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, apprehended in the Galápagos marine reserve carrying thousands of illegally caught sharks.

A revision of the Fisheries Law – the top document regulating China’s fishing industry – will now include the blacklist system. Experts believe the law will come into force later this year.


The law, which governs fishing in Chinese waters and by Chinese vessels further afield, is enforced by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Bureau. It started life in 1986, and has been revised four times, between 2000 and 2013.

Official notes on the upcoming revision make clear the law has not kept up with rapid changes to the industry. For example, tougher action is needed on new practices like electrofishing.

The revision clarifies who bears responsibility for breaking the law, increases penalties and clarifies details on enforcement. It includes a new section on oversight and management, specifying law enforcement powers and standards for evidence gathering. Wang Canfa, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law who helped draft the revision, said that “there was little language on law enforcement in the original, and lots of problems during enforcement.”

The law will receive several new additions to help curb IUU fishing. As well as the blacklist system, there will be requirements for vessels to record their port movements, with larger vessels having to stick to designated ports. Meanwhile, foreign vessels on the IUU lists of regional fisheries management organisations that China is party to will be banned from using Chinese ports.

Assuming the revision comes into force, severe breaches could result in Chinese vessels being confiscated, companies having their distant-water fishing licence revoked, and inclusion on the blacklist.

Rapid expansion

Though China began distant-water fishing later than major players like Norway and Japan, it has quickly expanded its activities. In 1985, the first Chinese distant-water fleet, of 13 vessels, reached African waters. By the end of 2018, China had almost 2,600 distant-water vessels, catching two million tonnes of fish a year.

With all major fishing nations expanding capacity, the number of vessels is growing faster than overall catch.

China’s rapid expansion of its fleet at a time when fisheries are in decline – 93% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are overfished or fished at maximum levels – has caused concern, and various controversies have led to tougher oversight.

In July 2019, opinions were solicited on revisions of distant-water fishing regulations, part of the Fisheries Law system, and the changes will explicitly ban distant-water firms and vessels from engaging in IUU activity.

In late August, due to “ever tougher requirements from regional fishery management organisations and host nations,” China published a proposed revision to rules managing vessel-monitoring systems, also due to come into force this year. It will require Chinese vessels to implement the strictest applicable vessel-monitoring rules – whether they belong to China, the host nation, or a regional fishery management organisation. Any vessel removing or turning off its transponder will lose subsidies for the year.

Then a draft of the revised fisheries law, including the blacklist system, was published for consultation. Tang Jianye, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, thinks it will strengthen the system. Mei Hong, a professor at China Ocean University, says the inclusion of the blacklist shows how seriously China is taking fisheries management and also brings the country into line with international treaties.

China is already a member of seven fishing treaties and management organisations, including the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). These commonly require their members to take measures at their ports to stop IUU fishing.

The revised Fisheries Law therefore states a “breach of relevant international treaties China has ratified or joined” as reason for inclusion on the blacklist.

Offending foreign vessels will be banned from Chinese ports and, in serious cases, confiscated. While this is the first time such measures have been formalised in legislation, similar actions have been taken before. In 2016, China detained a foreign vessel after it failed to prove the legality of the Patagonian toothfish onboard. CCAMLR confirmed the fish had been caught illegally, and requested the catch be sold. In 2018, the proceeds were donated to CCAMLR.

Lining up with port state measures

Alongside identifying IUU vessels via regional fishery organisation reports, the revision of the law includes articles on port state oversight of foreign fishing boats.

The UN’s Port State Measures Agreement requires signatories to refuse IUU vessels entry to port, and to confiscate catches and even vessels. The agreement, which came into force in June 2016, requires port states to confirm the place of registration of all foreign vessels in port, check for illegal catches, and share information in real time with other port states. Sixty-six nations plus the European Union have now signed up. But 77 coastal nations, including China, have not.

However, in a response to a proposal at the People’s National Congress, the Ministry of Agriculture said it is “working with other departments to join and implement the Port State Measures Agreement.”

Yet the country’s existing fishery management systems are nowhere near adequate to do so. Chinese academics Wang Tiantian and Tang Yi have pointed out that the oversight of fishing and non-fishing ports belongs to different departments; it is not clear who would be responsible for IUU fishing checks when a foreign vessel docks at a non-fishing port.

As they are rarely accepted by China’s fishing ports, foreign vessels do tend to dock at these non-fishing ports – where checks are carried out by marine and customs authorities.

“Determining if fish have been caught illegally, or if a vessel has been engaged in IUU fishing, is highly specialised work, and the marine and customs authorities will struggle. It should be done by the fisheries bureau,” said Tang Yi, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University.

Tang said articles in the revised Fisheries Law pave the way for port state measures to be implemented, and establish a process for checks on foreign vessels at non-fishing ports. To him the most important thing is systems for communication between the marine, customs and fishery authorities, so that fishery authorities know in real time when potential IUU vessels are arriving or leaving, and can be present at checks.

If China does sign up to the Port State Measures Agreement, its first task will be to designate ports for foreign fishing vessels to use. It will then need to allocate enforcement staff, build infrastructure at ports, and encourage cooperation across different departments. According to Wang Tiantian and Tang Yi’s paper, this will be no small challenge, and very costly.

But the benefits for fish populations and the countless people who rely on them for protein and a living would be vast.

Zhang Chun is a senior researcher at China Dialogue. This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.