China’s high-seas fishing fleet, the largest and farthest ranging in the world, is only economically viable due to state subsidies, while Japan and Spain provide even larger funding to their long-distance fleets than Beijing, according to a study.

Governments provided subsidies for fishing in the high seas — areas outside national waters that cover about two-thirds of the world’s oceans — worth $4.2bn in 2014, far exceeding profits derived from the activity, said the authors of a report published this month in the journal Science Advances.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have called for a ban on high-seas fishing due to declines in stocks of fish such as tuna and shark. Some 4.4m tonnes of high-seas fish worth $7.6bn were caught in 2014.

“Without subsidies, high-seas fishing at the global scale that we currently witness would be unlikely,” the report said. “On aggregate, current high-seas fishing by vessels from China, Taiwan and Russia would not be profitable without subsidies.” 

China accounted for 1.5m tonnes of the far-sea catch in 2014, the report said. Beijing has said it plans to increase its annual catch to 2.3m tonnes in 2020. Much of its haul is processed in China before being exported to Europe and the US.

The largest subsidies are provided by Japan ($841m) and Spain ($603m), followed by China ($418m), the report said. Apart from those payments, exploited labour and under-reported catches may explain how large vessels can afford to continue fishing in the high seas, it said.

The study follows a report published in the journal Science in February showing that China dominates global fishing, with Chinese-flagged boats accounting for 17m of the 40m fishing hours undertaken by large ships worldwide in 2016 — outstripping the hours of the 10 next biggest countries combined.

Five countries — China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — accounted for more than 85 per cent of observed fishing on the high seas, the report added.

China has clamped down on fishing in its own heavily depleted waters in recent years, while expanding its long-distance fleet, raising tensions with other maritime countries. Chinese fishermen have been involved in clashes with coastguards of countries as far away as Argentina, Ecuador and Guinea in recent years.

China’s fuel subsidies for its fishing fleet were a key topic of debate at a December World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires but Beijing did not agree to end the payments. 

China said ahead of the meeting that it would cap its number of far-ocean fishing vessels at 2,000 by 2020 — an increase of roughly 100 from the current level. However, that quota does not prevent Chinese fishing companies from using bigger boats.

Twitter: @hancocktom



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