By: Gregory McCann

This is the fourth of a series on how China is chewing its way through the natural resources of its Asian neighbors. Here are the others: 


China takes more fish out of the world’s seas than the next five countries combined, in fleets underwritten by government agencies. In fact, China is collapsing the world’s fish stocks. The fish populations that once abounded along the country’s vast coastline have now all but vanished.  

Nor is this scouring taking place only along the Chinese coastline. Today thousands of Chinese ships are trawling international waters from Guinea to Liberia and Senegal to Taiwan, Palau and Fiji and beyond to Chile and even beyond that, Chinese fishing vessels are scouring the seas for anything that swims, vastly underreporting their catches to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

No one—aside from China—knows precisely what is going on in terms of fishing around their manmade islands in the South China Sea, but reports from the general region say that fish stocks are collapsing. Even China has acknowledged that the widespread destruction of coral reefs and the poaching of sea turtles. In fact, China believes that the South China Sea is its territory – its own saltwater lake, in essence, delineated by its 1948 “nine-dash line” – and it would be foolish to imagine that anything less than what has happened to the coastline along the Chinese mainland would take place down in its newly “recovered” ancient territory.

In other words, this once ultra-rich fishery will soon turn into a wasteland, if it isn’t already. It’s not like the Chinese coast guard will allow foreign vessels to get too close.

These aren’t simply enterprising, hard-working fishermen who are willing to travel far to earn a paycheck. This is a state-sponsored activity. In a nutshell, what we have here is state-sponsored poaching of the high seas and even into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of sovereign nations, which has been causing scuffles to break out on the waves between foreign coastguards and Chinese poaching vessels. The thinking seems to be get it before it’s gone, or if we don’t catch it, someone else will, so poach it fast and get out of there.

It’s not difficult to imagine that this sort of thinking and action leads to a highly negative feedback cycle in which the oceans are rapidly overfished with state support and soon virtually emptied out. You get a desolate modern Chinese coast, except spread across the whole world. In fact, in a part of the South China Sea still under the control of the Philippines, Chinese fishermen have been seen deliberately destroying coral reefs.

This type of selfish thinking is going to lead to ecological catastrophe on a global scale in our oceans and seas. Who is going to do something about it? The WTO recently backed down on a stricter ruling regarding government fishing subsidies, and in response China’s state-funded Huanghai Shipbuilding Co. quickly built seven more tuna vessels. The United States and Canada might be able to keep Chinese vessels out of their EEZs, but how about West African nations? Chinese captains and boat owners like to target notoriously corrupt countries—many of which are located in West Africa—where they can easily make payoffs to corrupt officials. Traditional artisanal fishermen with small boats and nets cannot compete with state-sponsored Chinese poachers active in their homeland’s waters.

While China has publicly vowed to reform its foreign fishing habits, and while some countries such as the Bahamas are pushing back against Chinese fishing in their coastal waters (the Chinese are in the Caribbean too), the overall trend is towards escalated overfishing. The situation has gotten so bad, so fast, that some start-ups are thinking that “lab fish” grown in laboratories might be the solution.

And fishing “outposts” in foreign countries can have strategic and military implications as well, becoming bases and possible extensions of the military installations in the South China Sea.

We see this in happening already in Vanuatu where Chinese is building military installations (they deny it, saying they are only fishing), and also in Fiji where Chinese spy vessels are docking while hundreds of Chinese fishing boats are clearing tuna out of Fijian waters and everything else that swims.

With major military outposts in the South China Sea and now new ones sprouting up in small South Pacific nations, and with rented islands in the Maldives, 99-year leases on the Cambodian coast, debt-trap acquisitions in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it would seem that China has everything except the North Atlantic. It’s difficult to imagine that this is all a grand coincidence and not part of a secret strategy to get a stranglehold on the world’s seas, empty them out easily by backing up fishing vessels with “coast guard” ships from rented ports and artificial islands, and overfish it all until everything is gone. That certainly seems to be the direction we’re heading in, plan or no plan.      

For millennia the high seas were like gargantuan, boundless protected areas simply because refrigerated, long-distance fishing vessels didn’t exist. There would be no point in sailing a week out into the middle of the Pacific when everything would rot by the time you got back to port. But that’s all changed now, of course, and in addition to out-of-control overfishing, largely by the Chinese but also substantially the Taiwanese, ocean-going vessels also dump massive amounts of plastic and other waste into the high seas.

In fact, it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the worlds’ oceans. Who is going to be out there to patrol all of this? And this article didn’t even touch on the forced labor and outright slavery that constitutes the dreadful working conditions many “fishermen” find themselves tricked or coerced into.

Is there any solution? It’s hard for me to imagine it. Perhaps countries need to take a tougher stand and, like Indonesia, blow up foreign fishing vessels and make a public display of it in order send a strong signal to foreign poaching fleets. My guess is that only drastic measures will work.

Earlier this year while on an evening flight from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei I looked out the window down at the South China Sea and I had to blink, remove my glasses, rub my eyes, and take another look. Which city was this that we were flying over? Wasn’t this supposed to be a large body of water? A sea? There were so many lighted fishing boats (probably going for squid) down below that it looked as if we were passing over a sprawling city. So many fuzzy white lights down below that for a while I felt as if we were in a spacecraft flying over the Milky Way.

Is that the future of our oceans? Every inch of them being fished out every minute of the day, industrial-scale, non-stop? I don’t know for sure which country those fishing vessels hailed from, but if I had to make a guess, I know where I’d put my money.  

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.