China’s super trawlers are stripping the ocean bare as its hunger for seafood grows


Captain Lin Jianchang is a fisherman born and bred. Sitting on his small trawler mending nets, the 54-year-old says times are tough.

“When I started to fish we could fill our boat completely in an hour, we couldn’t move, there were fish everywhere,” he says.

“Now there’s less fish and it’s rare to get a big one.”

The world’s fisheries are in crisis. The United Nations food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 90 per cent of them are either overfished or at the limit of sustainability, and China is the major player.

By a long way, China has the world’s biggest deep sea fishing fleet that strip mines the world’s oceans.

The Chinese government heavily subsidises the fleet in an attempt to satisfy the country’s insatiable appetite for seafood, which accounts for a third of world consumption.

In the port city of Zhoushan on China’s east coast, 500 trawlers raced out to sea on the first day of the season.

Every season is harder than the last. The fleet have to head deeper into the ocean and stay for longer for a decent catch.

Chinese trawlers heading out to sea.
PHOTO: The Zhoushan fleet heading out to sea at the beginning of the fishing season. (ABC News: Steve Wang)
The seas around China have virtually no fish left but the commercial fishing fleet is still huge.

With an estimated 200,000 boats, it accounts for nearly half of the world’s fishing activity.

A dozen trawlers returned to Zhoushan with their first catch of the season — crab.

The hauls were good but well under half of previous years.

These days the smaller trawlers and boats mostly catch “trash fish” — tiny fish with little value, used as feed for animals and in aqua farms.

Like most others in Zhoushan, the only thing keeping Captain Lin and his crew afloat are government subsidies.

“The diesel fuel and fixing the boat would cost me 200,000 yuan ($40,000). The government subsidises me more than 100,000 yuan ($20,000),” Captain Lin said.

The Chinese government has given $28 billion in subsidies over the last four years to its fishing fleet.