Ships from mainland China amassed around 17 million hours of fishing in 2016, mostly off the southern coast of their home country, but also as far away as Africa and South America. The next-biggest operation is Taiwan’s, with 2.2 million hours of fishing.
The data, collected and analysed over five years by Global Fishing Watch, a non-profit group that tracks fishing operations, represent the most comprehensive look at where, and how often, the world’s fishing boats operate. A study of the data is published in the journal Science on Thursday.
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China “is the most important fishing nation”, David Kroodsma, Global Fishing Watch’s research and development director, the study’s lead author, said in an interview. “The extent of the Chinese fleet is even bigger than it seems.”
China’s distant-water fishing fleet, estimated as the world’s largest by Greenpeace, with 2,500 vessels, has not always been welcome in far-off waters. Ships are not allowed to work without permission in the exclusive economic zones of other countries, which extend by United Nations convention to 200km (125 miles) from shore.
Chinese trawlers were seized last year off Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau over illegal fishing. Argentina’s coastguard sank a Chinese trawler in 2016 that was fishing illegally within its territorial waters.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the activities of China’s fishing fleets.