Although more than a billion people rely on the oceans for food, today the vast majority of fishing grounds are under threat from both large-scale illegal and unregulated fishing and the pressures that climate change puts on already depleted fish populations.
We know that when fisheries collapse, people go hungry and unemployed fishermen are often exploited by traffickers to run drugs or weapons instead. Recognizing that the problem is global, scores of countries and hundreds of businesses and NGOs met a few weeks ago in Indonesia to share the concrete actions they are taking to protect our oceans.
Notably silent, however, was China.
The effects of illegal fishing threaten economic and food security around the world and put a disproportionate burden on the national security and economic stability of coastal nations. Solutions to these problems require international cooperation. That is why, in late October, over 3,000 leaders representing more than 70 countries and 200 nongovernmental organizations and private companies joined forces in Indonesia at the fifth Our Ocean Conference. Together they worked to tackle these fisheries challenges, as well as marine pollution and maritime security.
Many international conferences end up being talk shops that lack concrete commitments and tangible outcomes. But this annual event produces real action. Heads of state, foreign ministers, multinational CEOs, and global nongovernmental organization leaders made significant concrete, actionable commitments to protect the ocean and its resources for future generations.
Many Asian leaders and groups were eager to take a leadership role. One of the largest seafood producers in Asia, Thai Union, partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to commit $73 million for seafood supply chain sustainability improvements in Southeast Asia. Global Fishing Watch, fishing transparency data platform, promised to share fishing vessel tracking data from 20 countries.
Country-wise, Micronesia will implement electronic monitoring of all fishing vessels in the country’s waters by 2023. Japan promised financing to Asian countries working to close their markets to illegally-caught fish and sustainably manage their fisheries. And Indonesia announced $28 million for increased surveillance and investigations of illegal fishing.
Taken together, these actions will help protect lives and local economies the world over. All told, 307 commitments amounted to $10.7 billion and 14 million square kilometers of ocean protection.
In the past, China joined the Our Ocean conferences and announced positive commitments, presenting itself as a responsible steward of ocean resources. But this year, China not only made zero commitments, but chose not to send any senior representatives.
The “no show” at one of the world’s most meaningful ocean events is the latest choice in a disappointing pattern of broken promises to change its policies toward illegal fishing. Last year, China pledged to reduce its distant water fishing industry and announced a 3,000-vessel distant water fishing fleet cap. Its massive investments in the Belt and Road Initiative are often positioned as environmentally conscious trade and development policy. But at the same time, the central government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade deep-sea fishing vessels and subsidize their international fishing.
It is clear that while China has overfished its own waters, and is now forced to put seasonal management closures on its own fishing grounds, Chinese fishers are forced to look to more distant waters. Their distant water fleet, which is the largest in the world, is undermining sustainable development, the fisheries management of its neighbors, and long-held rules of maritime security.
China’s position as an economic global power continues to expand, and with that role comes the leadership responsibility to support environmental stewardship. However, there are concrete steps China could take to demonstrate its promises can be trusted and to match the rhetoric of ocean sustainability with action.
Joining the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) would be a first step. It would require that China meet port security requirements that prevent illegally caught fish from coming to market. Second, China should end its fishery subsidies to distant water fishing operations, as these incentivize the very behavior that compounds the illegal fishing problem. Third and finally, the Chinese government should tighten oversight of the country’s domestic fleets, focusing on unregulated and unreported fishing.
These concrete steps would improve the health of all fisheries and add credibility to China’s ambitions to leadership a sustainable ocean nation. Without careful stewardship, the ocean resources China depends on to fuel its growing economy, will be gone for everyone — including China. Given its position as one of the largest consumers and the largest producer of seafood in the world, positive engagement, reform, and leadership from the Chinese government are critical for the future of our ocean.
Sally Yozell is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center.