Overfishing is depleting oceans across the globe, with 90 percent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited or facing collapse, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
JOAL, Senegal — Once upon a time, the seas teemed with mackerel, squid and sardines, and life was good. But now, on opposite sides of the globe, sun-creased fishermen lament as they reel in their nearly empty nets.
“Your net would be so full of fish, you could barely heave it onto the boat,” said Mamadou So, 52, a fisherman in Senegal, gesturing to the meager assortment of tiny fish flapping in his wooden canoe.
A world away in eastern China, Zhu Delong, 75, also shook his head as his net dredged up a disappointing array of pinkie-size shrimp and fledgling yellow croakers. “When I was a kid, you could cast a line out your back door and hook huge yellow croakers,” he said. “Now the sea is empty.”
Overfishing is depleting oceans across the globe, with 90 percent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited or facing collapse, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. From Russian king crab fishermen in the west Bering Sea to Mexican ships that poach red snapper off the coast of Florida, unsustainable fishing practices threaten the well-being of millions of people in the developing world who depend on the sea for income and food, experts say.
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But China, with its enormous population, growing wealth to buy seafood and the world’s largest fleet of deep-sea fishing vessels, is having an outsize effect.
Having depleted the seas close to home, Chinese fishermen are sailing farther to exploit the waters of other countries, their journeys often subsidized by a government more concerned with domestic unemployment and food security than the health of the world’s oceans and the countries that depend on them.
Increasingly, China’s growing armada of distant-water fishing vessels is heading to the waters of West Africa, drawn by corruption and weak enforcement by local governments. West Africa, experts say, now provides the vast majority of the fish caught by China’s distant-water fleet. And by some estimates, as many as two-thirds of those boats engage in fishing that contravenes international or national laws.
China’s distant-water fishing fleet has grown to nearly 2,600 vessels (the United States has fewer than one-tenth as many), with 400 boats coming into service between 2014 and 2016 alone. Most Chinese ships are so large that they scoop up as many fish in one week as Senegalese boats catch in a year, costing West African economies $2 billion a year, according to a new study published by the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
Government subsidies are key
Many of the Chinese boat owners rely on government money to build vessels and fuel their journeys to Senegal, a monthlong trip from crowded ports in China. Overall, government subsidies to the fishing industry reached nearly $22 billion between 2011 and 2015, nearly triple the amount spent during the previous four years, according to Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
That figure, he said, does not include the tens of millions in subsidies and tax breaks that coastal Chinese cities and provinces provide to support local fishing companies.
According to one study by Greenpeace, subsidies for some Chinese fishing companies amount to a significant portion of their income. For one large state-owned company, CNFC Overseas Fisheries, the $12 million diesel subsidy it received last year made the difference between profit and loss, according to a corporate filing.
“Chinese fleets are all over the world now, and without these subsidies, the industry just wouldn’t be sustainable,” said Li Shuo, a global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia. “For Senegal and other countries of West Africa, the impact has been devastating.”
In Senegal, an impoverished nation of 14 million, fishing stocks are plummeting. Local fishermen working out of hand-hewn canoes compete with megatrawlers whose mile-long nets sweep up virtually every living thing. Most of the fish they catch is sent abroad, with a lot ending up as fishmeal fodder for chicken and pigs in the United States and Europe.
The sea’s diminishing returns mean plummeting incomes for fishermen and higher food prices for Senegalese citizens, most of whom depend on fish as their primary source of protein.
“We are facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Alassane Samba, a former director of Senegal’s oceanic research institute. “If things keep going the way they are, people will have to eat jellyfish to survive.”
When it comes to global fishing operations, China is the indisputable king of the sea. It is the world’s biggest seafood exporter, and its population accounts for more than one-third of all fish consumption, a figure growing by 6 percent a year.
The nation’s fishing industry employs more than 14 million people, up from 5 million in 1979, with 30 million others relying on fish for their livelihoods.
“The truth is, traditional fishing grounds in Chinese waters exist in name only,” said Zhang, of Nanyang University. “For China’s leaders, ensuring a steady supply of aquatic products is not just about good economics but social stability and political legitimacy.”
But as they press toward other countries, Chinese fishermen have become entangled in a growing number of maritime disputes.
Indonesia has impounded scores of Chinese boats caught poaching in its waters, and in March 2016, Argentine authorities sank a Chinese vessel that tried to ram a coast guard boat. Violent clashes between Chinese fishermen and South Korean authorities have left a half-dozen people dead.
For Senegal, which stretches along the Atlantic for more than 300 miles, the ocean is the economic lifeblood and a part of the national identity. Seafood is the main export, and fishing-related industries employ nearly 20 percent of the workforce, according to the World Bank.
Ceebu jen, a hearty fish stew, is the national dish, and sawfish — once plentiful but now rare — grace bank notes. No Senegalese postcard is complete without an image of pirogues, the exuberantly painted boats fishermen use.
Despite declining fish stocks, unrelenting drought linked to climate change has driven millions of rural Senegalese to the coast, increasing the nation’s dependence on the sea.
With two-thirds of the population younger than 18, the strain has helped fuel the surge of young Senegalese trying to reach Europe.
“Foreigners complain about Africa migrants coming to their countries, but they have no problem coming to our waters and stealing all our fish,” said Moustapha Balde, 22, whose teenage cousin drowned after his boat sank in the Mediterranean.
The migration to the coast has transformed this seaside city, Joal, from a palm-shaded fishing village into a town of 55,000. Abdou Karim Sall, 50, president of the local fishermen’s association, said there were now 4,900 pirogues in Joal, up from a few dozen when he was a teenager.
“We always thought that sea life was boundless,” he said while patrolling the coastline. Now, he added, “we are facing a catastrophe.”
Most of his ire is directed at the capacious foreign-owned trawlers. These days, more than 100 large boats work Senegalese waters, a mix of European, Asian and locally flagged vessels, according to government figures. That number doesn’t include boats that fly Senegalese flags but are owned by Chinese companies.
Also uncounted are the ships that fish illegally, often at night or on the fringes of Senegal’s 200-mile-wide exclusive economic zone — well out of reach of the country’s small navy.
Dyhia Belhabib, a fisheries expert trying to quantify illegal fishing along the African coast, said Chinese boats were among the worst offenders; in West Africa, they report just 8 percent of their catch, compared with 29 percent for European-flagged vessels, she said.
According to her estimates, Chinese boats steal 40,000 tons of fish a year from Senegalese waters, an amount worth roughly $28 million.
Her figures do not include boats engaged in illegal fishing that were never caught — nearly two-thirds of all Chinese vessels, she said. “When darkness falls, the dynamics of illegal fishing change dramatically and it becomes a free-for-all.”
Most of the small fish that swim in Senegalese waters — and make up 85 percent of the nation’s protein consumption — migrate in enormous schools between Morocco and Sierra Leone. Along the way, they are scooped up by hundreds of industrial trawlers, at least half of them Chinese-owned, experts say.
In 2012, Senegal stopped granting licenses to foreign trawlers for these small fish, but neighboring countries have refused to follow suit. Mauritania, where most of the fleet is Chinese-Mauritanian joint ventures, is home to 20 fishmeal factories that grind sea life into exported animal feed, with another 20 planned, according to Greenpeace.
Protecting the seas sometimes means saying no to China, whose largesse is funding infrastructure across Africa. “It’s hard to say no to China when they are building your roads,” said Samba, the former head of Senegal’s oceanic research institute.
China has become sensitive to accusations that its huge fishing fleet is helping push fish stocks to the brink of collapse.
The government says it is aggressively reducing fuel subsidies — by 2019 they will have been cut by 60 percent, according to a fishery official — and pending legislation would require all distant-water vessels manufactured in China to register with the government, enabling better monitoring.
“The era of fishing any way you want, wherever you want, has passed,” Liu Xinzhong, deputy general director of the Bureau of Fisheries in Beijing, said.
But criticism of China’s fishing practices, he added, is sometimes exaggerated, arguing that Chinese vessels traveling to Africa were simply responding to the demand for seafood from developed countries, which have been reducing their own fleets.
“People come to me and ask, ‘If China doesn’t fish, where would Americans get their fish to eat?’” he said.
In Joal, the dwindling catches have prompted the closing of three of the town’s ice factories, with the fourth barely holding on.
To catch anything, fishermen have to venture out farther, putting their lives at risk if an engine stalls or a late summer storm barrels through. Sometimes the danger is a super trawler whose wake can easily swamp a pirogue.
At Joal’s vast outdoor smoking center, the lack of fish was apparent in the empty racks normally stacked with yellow-tailed sardinella and millet stalks smoldering below.
Daba Mbaye, 49, one of the few people working, said the smokers could no longer compete with the fishmeal factories.
“They leave us with nothing, and we are powerless to stop them,” Mbaye said. “Now we are forced to catch juvenile fish, which is like going into a house and killing all the children. If you do that, the family will eventually disappear.”