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Squid off the Menu

China for the first time has announced closed seasons for its distant-water fishing fleet. But will it be the start of more effective international fishery management in deep-sea waters?

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Distant-water trawlers at anchor at the Zhoushan National Deep-sea Fishery Base, Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province, July 3, 2020

In July, the Bureau of Fisheries of China’s Ministry of Agriculture announced that it would implement two closed seasons on squid fishing in parts of the south-west Atlantic and eastern Pacific.  

Chinese fishing boats are forbidden to fish in waters off the east coast of Uruguay and northern Argentina from July 1 to September 30, and in waters west of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands from September 1 to November 30.  

Liu Xinzhong, an official from the Bureau of Fisheries confirmed with NewsChina that after the closed season became effective on July 1, all Chinese fishing boats in the affected waters have now either been transferred to other fishing grounds or have returned to their home ports for maintenance. This is the first time China has voluntarily imposed a closed season on its deep-sea fishing operations, and Chinese officials hope this will promote international cooperation in deep-sea fishing management.  

Population Declines
The main targets of the ban are two squid species, the Humboldt squid, found mainly in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and the Argentine shortfin squid in the southwest Atlantic Ocean.  

In past years, the rapacious global fishing industry largely fished out apex predators like sharks and tuna and caused a major population decline in medium-sized fish species such as cod, hake and halibut. Squid, octopus and cuttlefish, which are fast-growing and highly adaptive to climate change, are the main targets of the distant-water fishing industry.  

Accounting for 50 to 70 percent of all squid caught in international waters in past years, the Chinese mainland has been the top player in the squid fishing industry since 2009. It is estimated that 60 percent of all squid caught by Chinese fishing boats are from international waters.  

But more recently, squid populations are in decline, with the Argentine shortfin in the southwest Atlantic seeing the greatest drop. According to Zhang Hongbin, an official at the Ocean and Fishery Bureau of Zhoushan, a city in East China’s Zhejiang Province, the average squid catch of Chinese vessels has witnessed a dramatic decline in the southwest Atlantic.  

“After reaching a high of 3,181 metric tons per vessel in 2007, the average catch per vessel dropped to about 2,000 tons in 2017,” Zhang said. “And in 2019, the figure was down to just 50 tons.” Many smaller fishing operators went bankrupt in 2019, Zhang said.  

Climate Change
According to Professor Chen Xinjun, president of the College of Marine Sciences at Shanghai Ocean University, the declining catch is due to two reasons - overfishing of juvenile squid and climate change.  

Chen told NewsChina that unlike most common fish species which are hunted, squid has a relatively short life span and a very high reproduction rate. Both Humboldt squid and Argentine shortfin squid have a life span of about one or two years, and they typically die after spawning. 

While Humboldt squid spawn year round, with two peaks from February to April and September to November, Argentine shortfin spawn mainly in July and August.  

With the closed seasons announced by China covering the spawning period for Argentine shortfin squid and one of two peaks for Humboldt squid, Chen said that the temporary ban can help squid populations bounce back quickly.  

As for the impact of climate change, Chen said that the accelerated melting of ice sheets in the Antarctic may cause increased die-off of juvenile squid. But more importantly, ice sheet melt causes changes in ocean currents, resulting in the change of the location of fisheries. Overall, Chen said that the catch in the traditional fishing grounds of the southwest Atlantic is declining. But squid populations within Argentina’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the waters around the Falkland Islands have increased.  

Huang Baoshan, director of the China Distant Water Fishery Association, said that despite the likely impact of the closed seasons, most fishing businesses in China support the temporary ban. Huang told NewsChina that based on the experience of the Argentine government, which imposes a closed season between September and January in its coastal waters, the temporary ban has resulted in bigger squid sizes and greater overall catches.  

According to Chen Bin, chief director of Zhoushan National Pelagic Fishery Base in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province, the closed seasons will help push China’s increasingly obsolete trawler fleet out of the market. Chen told NewsChina that there are two types of fishing boats operating in the affected areas, squid jigging vessels and trawlers. While the former specializes in illuminated squid fishing, the latter drags its trawls, or nets, along the seabed, stripping it of all marine life. These trawler fleets have long been criticized for damaging the marine environment.  

Chinese authorities have outlawed the construction of new trawlers, but there are still about 30 in China’s deep-sea fishing fleet.  

Chen said that as trawlers operate year-round, the impact of the closed seasons will be much greater than for the squid jigging vessels, which usually operate for half the year. “The closed seasons could lead to a one-third reduction in annual catch for trawlers, which could push more trawlers out of business,” Chen said.  

International Cooperation?
But for some fishing operators, the biggest concern over the new measures is that China is the only country or region to have imposed closed seasons in those specific waters. In the southwest Atlantic, after around 200 fishing boats from the Chinese mainland left the area following the implementation of the temporary ban, there are still about 100 fishing boats from countries and regions like South Korea and Spain operating in the area.  

But for Wang Xiaoqing, chief engineer of Zhejiang Ocean Family, a major squid fishing company, it is time for China, as the world’s biggest catcher and consumer of squid, to take a lead in international collaboration over the management of marine resources. “China is the biggest player and stakeholder, and it should take the initiative,” Wang said.  

In announcing the closed seasons, China’s Ministry of Agriculture said that it will suggest regional fishery management organizations adopt long-term measures, such as implementing international closed seasons and establishing an international squid-management organization. 

The announcement also says that the ministry will assess the outcome of the closed season annually, with the length and extent of the closed seasons to be adjusted accordingly. “If the measures turn out to be less effective than expected, China could extend the closed season to four or six months, as well as expanding the areas of the temporary ban,” Chen said.  

The waters of the southwest Atlantic are among the few areas where there are no regional fishery management bodies. In the eastern Pacific Ocean, while there is a fishery management body, there are no effective regulations on squid fishing. “As China takes the first step to impose closed seasons in the area, other countries could become more proactive in the future,” said Chen Xinjun. 

Tightening Measures
According to Hu Jianhua, an official from the Agricultural Department of Zhejiang Province, the new bans form part of China’s efforts to tighten controls on the distant-water fishing industry. 

In the past couple of years, China has increased monitoring of its fishing fleet, including the installation of 24-hour vessel-monitoring systems. Captains and company executives found guilty of major regulation breaches could be subject to temporary or permanent bans, loss of subsidies and public blacklisting.  

Based on a plan released in 2017, China also capped the size of its distant-water fishing fleet. In early 2020, there were 3,000 deep-sea fishing boats in the mainland fleet, representing what officials called a “zero increase” from 2016.  

As 90 percent of operators of distant-water fishing boats are small- and mid-sized companies, implementation of these measures remains a challenge for Chinese authorities. In early May, news that a Chinese fishing vessel was chased by the Argentine coast guard after fishing for squid in the Argentine EEZ again made headlines in local media.  

Hu told NewsChina that as China adopts stricter measures, small operators that are more likely to breach regulations will be gradually squeezed out from the industry, promoting the development of bigger companies that have better compliance mechanisms.  

Hu said that this is already happening in Zhejiang Province. “But to fundamentally transform the industry, more drastic measures are needed,” Hu said.