Freelance Journalist


China's statistics are fishier than its oceans; why the PRC overcounts its annual catch


The hundred or so boats anchored in a fishing port of Penglai in China's Shandong province have seen better days. Their blue paint is chipped, their equipment rusty. A handful of fishermen brave the stiff January breeze to get the boats in shape for the opening of the fishing season in March. This year they are steeling themselves for disappointment. In recent years it's been getting harder and harder to find enough fish. Many boats venture far out into international waters, bigger ones sometimes going as far as Indonesia and the South Pacific, fishermen say. "There are too many boats and too few resources," says a fisherman who goes by Chen. "It's difficult to make money."


This grim testimony doesn't square with the happy story the People's Republic of China has been telling the world for more than a decade. Each year since 1988, Chinese officials have reported a steady rise in the number of fish caught off China's shores, even as fish stocks almost everywhere else have declined. Last year, according to China Daily, an official newspaper, fishermen caught a record 41 million tons of fish. Since China accounts for such a large proportion of the world's catch (about three in every 10 fish are caught off its shores), this robust output has more than compensated for the paltry showing elsewhere. In recent years China's rising catch has outstripped the combined decline of every other country in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

But now, it turns out, China's numbers were too good to be true. A study recently published in the scientific journal Nature has set the U.N. numbers on their head. China's stocks have not been increasing by an average annual rate of 330,000 tons a year, write Reg Watson and Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia. In fact, they've actually been falling by 360,000 tons annually. Jane Lubcenco, a professor of zoology at the University of Oregon who reviewed the paper, called the findings "earthshaking." "The global state of the oceans is a lot more serious than we have been led to believe," said Lubcenco. "We have been overfishing to a much greater extent than previously thought."

The inflated numbers seem to have been spawned by antiquated communist data-collection methods, according to Watson and Pauly. Each year in China, local officials are asked to report their catches to Beijing--knowing full well their promotions depend on good news. Local officials passed inflated numbers to Beijing officials, who simply added them up without validating them, and sent them along to the United Nations. They must have begun to suspect that the overall numbers were too rosy, because in 1999 Beijing declared a temporary "zero growth" policy on its fishing statistics. For three years running it has reported the same tonnage of catches to the United Nations.

Publicly, Chinese officials deny that their numbers were inflated. Yang Jian, director-general of the Bureau of Fisheries, said recently to the Xinhua News Agency that the country's statistics were "basically correct," and argued that the fishing reports conformed to China's "statistics laws." But another fishery official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that "we don't have enough of a budget to do surveys--we don't have enough evidence to tell what the real situation is." The fishery official said local fishermen may not think accurate reporting is "important," and may make reports of their catch "based on a feeling." "We often call local or provincial agencies and ask them if the numbers are real," he said. "They say 'Yes, they are real.' But we have no proof."

Pauly and Watson arrived at their estimate by building a statistical database that includes FAO's own historical data along with detailed information not included in the overall fishing number. They used the database to make predictions about the catch sizes of fish in different regions of the world, taking into account factors such as ocean depth and coral reefs. When they checked their predictions against fresh reports, they proved to be accurate in most places. In China, however, the scientists' estimates were much lower than what Chinese officials had been reporting.

Nobody knows how close China's waters are to being fished out, but the need to regulate fishing in the area is now "very urgent," says Rebecca Lent, who oversees regulatory programs for the U.S. Marine Fisheries Service. China has taken some steps to reduce fishing. Fish farms have proliferated. And in 1995, Beijing banned fishing in the Bo Hai and Yellow seas during June, July and August (and more recently on some rivers). But environmentalists doubt that the government has the political will to make more stringent regulations stick. If not, China may become another Newfoundland, where fish stocks were depleted a decade ago and still haven't recovered.

To many fisheries experts, the study confirms what they have long suspected. In most places, the amount of seafood caught peaked just before 1990 and has been declining ever since--even though just as many boats are trolling the high seas. According to the FAO, in 1951 almost 55 percent of the world's known fisheries were undeveloped. By 1970 none was undeveloped. By 1994, 30 percent had been overfished and were in trouble, while 25 percent were in danger of becoming so. Things are likely to get worse. "People who follow this know that the overall catch numbers have masked serious underlying problems in the world's fisheries," says Scott Burns, director of the World Wildlife Fund's marine conservation fund. Environmentalists are hoping that the study acts as a wake-up call. Perhaps it will encourage the United States and other countries to create a new international organization to regulate fishing in the Western Pacific. And in the future, perhaps fewer people will believe the fish stories from China. 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney