Why Big Boats Can’t Replace Hainan’s Small-Scale Fishers
This is the second piece in a series on the transformation of China’s small-scale fisheries. Part one can be found here.
Lai has been fishing off the coast of the southern island province of Hainan for almost 30 years. For decades, he could earn anywhere from a few dozen yuan to 400 yuan ($62) a day: not life-changing, but enough for his family to get by.
Those days are long gone. Since the 1970s, overfishing has led to a gradual decline in marine stocks around the world, leading to the collapse of local fishing industries and their replacement by recreational fishing. China is currently going through a similar transition. Its total marine fishing catch came in at just over 10 million metric tons in 2019, down from 12.4 million metric tons in 2011. This has had knock-on effects on employment: Between 2008 and 2019, the number of Chinese fishers like Lai decreased by around 1.5 million.
In Bamen Bay, where Lai is based, local authorities began to reclaim the area’s aquaculture farms and introduce fishing bans in 2017. At first, Lai contemplated sneaking out to continue fishing, but reconsidered after hearing about someone from the neighboring village going out and having his boat impounded.
In recent years, the Hainan government has called on fishers like Lai to “go ashore, go farther out to sea, and go recreational fishing.” “Going ashore” refers to encouraging fishers to move into aquaculture, specifically fish farms constructed by the government that can be centrally managed to minimize environmental damage, as opposed to those built by locals with no consideration for environmental impact. However, moving into aquaculture requires capital to rent ponds and buy equipment, as well as skills and know-how, which often deters small-scale fishers like Lai.
“Going farther out to sea” refers to deep-sea fish farming using net cages, which again requires higher up-front investment than traditional fishing. Each cage costs at least 10,000 yuan, a price fishers like Lai simply cannot afford.
For Lai, who has spent most of his life out on the open water, if he doesn’t want to completely walk away from the sea, his only option is recreational fishing.
Recreational fishing is a relatively new concept in China. In 2011, what is now China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs included recreational fishing in its development plan for the first time, recognizing it as one of the country’s five modern fishery sectors.
The recreational fishing sector includes fishing trips, seafood restaurants, accommodation for visiting fishers, fishing competitions, festivals, and so on. For a small-scale fisher like Lai, the cost of converting his home into a restaurant or homestay is just too high. Instead, most fishers prefer to use their boats to carry out fishing-related activities, taking tourists out to catch fish and collect shells.
But the policy framework surrounding recreational fishing in Hainan is often out of step with local conditions. For example, the province’s guidelines explicitly state that “recreational fishing boats should be over 24 meters in length.” However, the shoals around Hainan are rocky and there are few docks suitable for such large boats. Of Hainan’s more than 20,000 registered fishing vessels, nearly 80% are under 12 meters in length, thereby excluding the majority of the island’s fishers from the recreational fishing industry.
The requirement that boats be longer than 24 meters was motivated by safety concerns and efforts to streamline management. Larger vessels are more stable at sea, which helps ensure the safety of tourists and provides them with a more comfortable experience. They’re also more expensive. Large boats cost at least $2 million to build, meaning only large companies can afford them. This aligns with Hainan’s policies aimed at developing tourism by incentivizing large capital investments.
“Recreational fisheries in Hainan can only be built into a commercially viable industrial system with the help of investment groups or cluster capital as well as R&D,” Ren Yongjie, the chairman of a new energy and technology company, told a state media outlet last year.
But how does Hainan’s large population of out-of-work small-scale fishers fit into this new industrial system?
Some officials are aware of the need to address this problem. “Recreational fishing should create more and a larger variety of jobs for fishers. A single small fishing boat can solve the financial troubles of several families,” a cadre from the city of Wenchang told my research team. “The conditions here in Bamen Bay are suitable for small boat operations. Large boats can’t go out when the tide is low.”
Only allowing larger boats to participate is far from ideal. They are unfit for many coastal activities, they have higher operating costs, and there is a limited number of village fishers who can be employed to run them.
The experience of other provinces can offer a road map for helping individual fishers adapt to the rise of recreational fishing. For example, the eastern Zhejiang province began developing its recreational fishing industry around 2003. Its regulations were more flexible, with management zones based on the local sea conditions. To help ensure safety, the government introduced various provisions, including a ban on sailing at night, requirements for all fishing boats to be equipped with collision-avoidance devices and positioning systems, and a provision requiring all those who venture out to sea — tourists included — to purchase insurance.
Cai is a Zhejiang-based former fisher who now works with some of his relatives to refit small fishing boats to meet government safety standards for recreational fishing. There, the local authorities have funded improvements to the docks to make it easier for tourists to get around, and Cai explained that besides tourism-oriented businesses, scientific research institutes had also engaged him to collect samples at sea. His income is higher now than it was when he simply sold fish.
At present, Hainan’s recreational fishing laws and regulations are mainly aimed at injecting external capital and technology to accelerate the transformation and upgrading of coastal industries — not finding new employment opportunities for the region’s tens of thousands of underemployed fishers and their families. Yet, without paying more attention to this underserved demographic, the island’s fishing villages will never be transformed into sustainable coastal communities.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A fisherman sorts nets on his boat on the Bamen Bay in Wenchang, Hainan province, Nov. 19, 2020. Courtesy of Chen Mingzhi)