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China Estimated to Dramatically Underreport Its Overseas Fishing Catch

April 4, 2013

From Scientific American:

It is a whopper of a catch, in more ways than one: China is under-reporting its overseas fishing catch by more than an order of magnitude, according to a study published on 23 March. The problem is particularly acute in the rich fisheries of West Africa, where a lack of transparency in reporting is threatening efforts to evaluate the ecological health of the waters.

Not only this is a big problem for fisheries management. This also is part of two interesting and on-going problems.  First, it is the problem of getting good fisheries statistics out of China. Daniel Pauly, the scientist who led this current study, also led another study published in 2001 that showed that the catches reported by China for its coastal fisheries were radically over-reported.  Funny how we have the opposite problem in China’s distant water fleet.  This suggests there is quite the culture of number fudging throughout the industry.

Second, this is part of a trend towards illegal fishing in West Africa. As Agnew et al. noted in 2009, West Africa is a hotbed of illegal fishing activity. Chinese, Taiwanese, and EU vessels have been the clear culprits, but no good numbers have been available to know the scale of their illegal fishing. We’ve got our first good picture of illegal fishing in West Africa thanks to this study.

I think the research is also quite phenomenal as the study’s methodology was part-journalism, part-economics.  Here’s on the method:

Fishing contracts between Chinese companies and African nations are secret, so to estimate the catch, Pauly and his team had to do some sleuthing. The picture was further clouded because Chinese companies sometimes operate vessels flying local flags. So at least ten researchers combined clues from field interviews, scholarly articles and newspaper and online reports in 14 languages to estimate how many Chinese fishing vessels were operating in 93 countries and territories. They found many in nations where China reported no catch. The estimates were averaged to reach their conclusion: China had at least 900 ocean-going vessels, with 345 in West Africa, including 256 bottom-trawlers. [bold added]

Digging into the nitty gritty details, I found the ‘crowd-sourcing’ of expert knowledge quite interesting. I think it is fair to say it means the article shows there is a serious problem, but that we should go bandying about the exact estimated catch numbers.  Sometimes crowds are wrong and I would challenge that the experts used had gained knowledge independent of the other experts. As written in the article:

The large number of project members involved in the  estimation  of  the  number  of  Chinese  distant-water vessels operating in the EEZ of various countries (always >10 persons; including many of the authors  of  ‘catch  reconstructions’  (sensu  Zelleret al.  2007a)  in  the  region  of  interest),  and  the independence of their individual estimates prior to computing the averages was to allow for the ‘wisdom of crowd’ effect to work. This enables a large number of informed estimates to converge towards the correct values, as they will do when they are truly  independent  (see  Surowiecki  2005;  for  a detailed  account;  Galton  1907;  for  the  first  well-documented case; and Herzog and Hertwig 2009; for   recent   methodological   improvements).

Furthermore, it’s worth considering how ‘Chinese vessel’ was defined. It was not based on the flag of the vessel, but on the crew composition.

We  define  ‘Chinese  vessels’  as  boats  with  officers and crew from the People’s Republic of China (but excluding   the   Macau   and   Hong   Kong   Special Administrative Regions, which do not have distant-water fleets, and Taiwan, which does), irrespective of  their  flag.  Hong Kong  is,  however,  where  the large  Pacific  Andes  Corporation  is  headquartered (partly  owned  by  the  Chinese  Government)  and which  operates  in  32  countries  (Pacific  Andes 2012).  Pacific  Andes’  vessels,  for  the  most  part included  in  this  account  (if  under  diverse  flags), were involved in massive overfishing in the south-east Pacific (Rosenblum 2012). We made the above vessel  definition  choice  for  two  reasons:  firstly, because  there  are  likely  few  (if  any)  instances  in which a fishing boat that is not owned, directly or indirectly, by a Chinese firm (irrespective of the flag flown)  is  operated  by  Chinese  officers  and  crew; and  secondly,  because  of  the  widespread  use  of ‘flags of convenience’ as well as ‘charter’ and ‘joint venture’  arrangements,  which  render  difficult  the identification  of  actual  beneficial  ownership  and prevent  proper  compensation  through  access  fees. Indeed, the  flag  a  vessel  is  flying  often  has  little bearing on the beneficial ownership of the landed catch (Griggs and Lugten 2007).

Bonus quote:

Fisheries scientists find the latest assessment startling. “So that’s where my fish were going!” says Didier Gascuel at the European University of Brittany in Rennes, France, who is a member of the scientific committee that advises Mauritania and the EU on fishing agreements. Year after year, Mauritanian populations of bottom-dwelling species such as octopus, grouper and sea bream have remained stubbornly low — a sign of over­fishing by bottom-scraping trawlers, he says. “We had no idea the Chinese catch was so big and of course we never included it our models,” he says.

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