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2021-02-02 12:54:35

When his vessel is still far out to sea, the captain uses a mobile phone app to notify the port of his arrival. He specifies what time he’ll get in, and submits catch data that the port managers will later check.

This is how it works off Taizhou, on China’s eastern coast, where trials of a system designating the ports where domestic fishing vessels can land their catches have been running since 2018. A traceability trial has also been running in parallel: Each crate of fish is bar-coded so it can be tracked from when it was caught to the port, and then on to the market. By scanning the code with a mobile phone, anyone along the supply chain can see this information as well as where the fish were caught and by which boat.

The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) announced a first batch of 66 designated ports last year. The plan is to have enough ports approved by the end of 2021 to accommodate all fishing vessels of 12 meters or more in length, at which point, the MoA may ban the landing of catches elsewhere. Although China has more than twice as many vessels shorter than 12 meters, the longer group has almost seven times the total horsepower and accounts for the bulk of Chinese coastal fishing capacity.

The designated port scheme is part of overall reforms to the management of ports and fishing vessels in China. While previous oversight focused on vessels at sea, the new reforms aim to allow sustainable fisheries management, with better reporting of when vessels enter and leave, and various checks, including of landed catches, catch quantity, legal compliance, and vessel safety management. These will all be handled at the port, where fishing sector workers, vessels, and catches come together.

A fisher unloads crates of fish at Shenjiamen Fishing Port in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, Dec. 19, 2020. Hu Sheyou/People Visual

A fisher unloads crates of fish at Shenjiamen Fishing Port in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, Dec. 19, 2020. Hu Sheyou/People Visual

Why designate ports?

“The designated ports are a very important starting point for our reforms, and will solve issues with checking data on catches landed,” Tang Yi, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, told China Dialogue Ocean.

The designated ports are a very important starting point for our reforms.

Currently, China’s catch statistics are reported upward through various levels of fisheries authorities, and discrepancies can be quite large. But as the ports are a bottleneck through which all fish must pass as they move from sea to table, the designation system should allow landed weight information to be reported accurately and checked properly.

This data matters for sustainable fisheries management. The fishing quota system included in the version of China’s Fisheries Law that was revised in 2000 has never been implemented due to problems with data, oversight of the fish trade, and technology.

Without monitoring catches on their arrival in port and transfer to the market, fish are landed and sold freely. That has allowed overfishing, reducing the effect of both controls on fishing capacity and stricter closed seasons.

Limits on vessel numbers and horsepower date back to the late 1980s and have featured in a number of China’s five-year plans for economic development. But data from 2003 to 2014 show that while vessel numbers fell, overall horsepower rose. Experts put that failure down to a lack of enforcement. There was, for example, nothing to stop a large vessel registering as a smaller one. The first closed seasons started in 1995 and were lengthened in 2017, but while they protected fish during spawning, they did nothing to curb overfishing at other times.

Since 1995, China’s annual coastal fishing catch has always been over 10 million metric tons. In 2016, it reached 13.28 million, far above the level recommended by experts. The fish caught are becoming younger and smaller as a result of this overfishing.

It was only in 2017 when a system for comprehensively managing ocean fisheries became a major item on the MoA’s agenda. This meant China would start managing fishing catches, alongside existing controls on vessel numbers and total horsepower. That year, Dongying and Taizhou in Shandong and Zhejiang provinces, respectively, began the country’s first trials of fishing quotas. The following year, Taizhou trialed a system that combined the management of both fishing ports and fishing vessels. The designated port system, and the associated traceability scheme, are part of these ongoing reforms. In the future, ports will be more than places where boats moor, unload, and supply — they will be fishing management hubs.

Fishers unload their catch at Shitang Fishing Port in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Nov. 18, 2019. Wang Dafu/People Visual

Fishers unload their catch at Shitang Fishing Port in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Nov. 18, 2019. Wang Dafu/People Visual

What is a designated port?

There’s no official word yet on how the designated port system will actually work. But the trials in Taizhou provide a clue. First, total allowable catches will be decided, with those quotas allocated to fishing vessels. Then, catches and trading will be monitored, and checks at designated ports will be carried out. Meanwhile, traceability to monitor the total catch and prevent illegal fishing will be ensured.

Certain things need to be in place to achieve all this: managers and law enforcement officials based at the port, a designated fish market for trading, appropriate facilities for unloading the fish, and electronic monitoring equipment at the harbor mouth. The real challenge is guaranteeing all these systems work together.

The port office at Shitang in Taizhou has a port management system that allows it to see which vessels are arriving and leaving in real time. An electronic barrier at the mouth of the harbor identifies vessels arriving that have not registered, so they can be checked. Vessels participating in the trial have satellite trackers fitted so their location can be seen at all times, in any weather. And bar codes let the fishing boats, catch carrier vessels, and buyers at the port report what they’ve caught or purchased directly to the management system. Getting all that up and running is expensive, and it takes some time to implement.

The trials in Taizhou and Shandong’s Yantai have somebody to help with this. The “port chief” coordinates changes and keeps an eye on progress. When it becomes necessary to work across various domains — fishing authorities, planning authorities, government finance, market oversight, environmental protection, meteorology, fire-fighting — the port chief acts as the go-between and decision-maker.

In April 2019, a meeting on the port and fishing vessel reforms proposed a full roll-out of the port chief system. Ports — including Zhoushan, Nantong, and Weihai in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shandong provinces, respectively — issued plans for implementation, using the port chief system as the starting point.

Workers move crates of seafood at Shitang Fishing Port in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Nov. 18, 2019. Wang Dafu/People Visual

Workers move crates of seafood at Shitang Fishing Port in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Nov. 18, 2019. Wang Dafu/People Visual

When is it happening?

We aren’t going to see a nationwide roll-out of designated ports right away. A full list of them is only due by the end of the year. According to one fisheries expert, there will be two new batches announced before then, but it is unclear when the system will be fully implemented.

The ports announced so far are not evenly distributed. Shandong and the southern Guangdong province have the most, with 24 and 18, but the Liaodong Peninsula and the eastern Fujian province have one and three, despite having just as many ports. It seems some provinces have not yet applied, judging by 2018 data on the number of ports nationwide. Some of these may not have the necessary conditions in place. But then, according to the expert mentioned above, local governments do not need to apply for designated port status even once those conditions are in place.

China’s larger ports are categorized as Central, Tier 1, or Tier 2, in descending order of size. In 2018, China published development plans for its ports up until 2025, with the aim of improving safety and management. Under those plans, the number of Central and Tier 1 ports will reach 237 by 2025, while Tier 2 ports and (the even smaller) shelter anchorages are to be upgraded and repaired. Central, Tier 1, or Tier 2 ports will be the main sites for fish landing in the future.

Of course, the question of the smaller fishing vessels also needs to be addressed if sustainable fishing is to be achieved in China’s waters.

The question of China's smaller fishing vessels also needs to be addressed if sustainable fishing is to be achieved.

Small vessels currently make up half of the domestic motor-powered fishing fleet. There are 150,000 of them, and in seaside provinces like Shandong, Fujian, Guangdong, and Hainan, they account for 70% of all vessels. Most belong to subsistence fishers, but their catch cannot be overlooked. These boats can also transfer catches between the larger fishing vessels and ports.

The designated ports system for larger fishing vessels and the traceability scheme are included in a draft of a new revision to the Fisheries Law that was published in 2019. The draft also rules that designated ports and traceability for small fishing vessels will be implemented via city-level fishery authorities. That revision is not yet law, and it is not known how or when local governments would do this implementation. But if it does not happen promptly, it may undercut the effectiveness of the designated port scheme for larger vessels.

This is an original article written by Zhang Chun of China Dialogue Ocean. It has been republished with permission. The article can be found on China Dialogue Ocean’s website here.

(Header image: Lines of boats are moored at Shenjiamen Fishing Port in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, Dec. 19, 2020. Hu Sheyou/People Visual)