This episode is part of the National Committee’s U.S.-China HORIZONS series.

Global fish consumption has risen rapidly since 1960, resulting in a 25 percent increase in overexploited fish stocks in the past 30 years alone. The United States and China are key drivers of the $150 billion wild seafood industry, making them leading stakeholders in ensuring its sustainable management.

Tabitha Mallory, founder and CEO of the China Ocean Institute, discusses how China and the United States contribute to both the problems and solutions for conserving this valuable and vulnerable common resource.

Speaker Bio

Tabitha Grace Mallory is founder and CEO of the China Ocean Institute and an affiliate professor of the University of Washington Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Dr. Mallory specializes in Chinese foreign and environmental policy. She is currently conducting research on China and global ocean governance and has published work on China’s fisheries and oceans policy. Dr. Mallory has consulted for organizations such as the United Nations Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the Packard Foundation.

Dr. Mallory holds a Ph.D. (with distinction) and an M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a certificate in Chinese studies from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and a double B.A. in international studies and Mandarin Chinese from the University of Washington. She is a member of the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program.


Could you summarize a few of the key problems facing the world’s fisheries?

Dr. Mallory: Yes. So, the starting point is really industrialized fishing. That began in the late 19th century, but it really got underway in the 1950s. There’s both the mentality and the technology as key drivers here. So, the first one is the idea that we can approach fisheries. It kind of comes from this era of modernization, that we can approach fisheries the same way as we do producing goods in a factory or even the way we approach land-based agriculture. So, if you put in a certain number of inputs, you can expect to get a certain number of outputs. But wild fisheries don’t really work that way.

Then second is technology and the buildup of technology. We began building huge fishing vessels with the idea of harvesting more fish. That technology keeps improving to the point where today it’s almost too good, so we’re just catching all the fish. A lot of those big vessels and the technology has been propped up by subsidies given to the industry. That’s still a really big problem today. There’s a lot of talk at the WTO about how to reduce those fisheries subsidies, and the problem with subsidies is that it makes the industry profitable when it would otherwise not be. So, overfishing, in general, is the main problem with these factors feeding into it. But then when you drill down into how you manage the problem, there’s issues with illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing or IUU fishing.

For example, you might have a regulated fishing, but there’s still illegal fishing going on, and that’s really hard to monitor because the oceans are so huge, and plus the maritime law enforcement is really expensive. Then in another case, you might have unregulated fisheries, which means that people are still fishing and it’s just a free for all. So, that’s generally leading to overfishing. Then you have issues of poor governance, corruption, a lack of transparency, especially in how bilateral fisheries agreements are signed and what the conditions of those are, how much is actually going to certain subsidy programs, stuff like that. Then, in general, we are destroying our marine habitat. The biggest issue is climate change. That’s going to continue to be a problem and just exacerbate everything else. But we’re also destroying marine habitat through destructive fishing practices, through pollution, through land reclamation, and so on.
What is China’s role in the global fishing industry?

Mallory: For global fishing, China has a large distant water fishing industry. That’s the industry that fishes on the high seas, which is the area of the ocean that belongs to no country. Also, in the exclusive economic zones or EZs of other countries. That’s usually arranged through a bilateral fisheries access agreement. So, their fleet is the largest in the world now, but there are other countries that have had a head start on this. So, when the Soviet Union was around, they were the largest. Russia has since decreased the industry, but they’re increasing it again. But Japan is a really big player, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain. So, China has not been around as long but now they are the largest. They also provide the largest number of subsidies to that industry compared to other countries.

So, the small-scale local fishers make less of an impact, especially because they stay at home, so they’re just off China’s coasts. It’s better to regulate that because it’s just easier in terms of their coastguard forces to catch them. Also, because China has an incentive to better regulate its own fisheries because it directly feels the impact, but the fleet that goes around the world, it’s much further away, so it’s much harder to monitor that. So, it’s the industrial fishers that make the big impact. They have the big ships. They get the really big subsidies. In terms of the ownership structure, a lot of those are state-owned enterprises. But the industry is being increasingly privatized. It’s hard to say definitively if all of them are getting subsidies, but for the most part, they probably are, if anything, because it’s just cost-prohibitive to not engage in fishing without subsidies. Particularly the fuel subsidies are a big part of it. Fuel is really expensive and the ships are going far away. So, they need that extra help.
How has China’s fishing activity particularly in the South China Sea, complicated issues of maritime security, such as territorial disputes?

Mallory: So, the fishing vessels and the Coast Guard vessels, to a certain extent too, because they’re the ones that police the fisheries, those have been used to assert China’s maritime claims, and other countries have used them to a certain extent as well. Those vessels are one step below the naval forces. So, this is the whole white holes versus gray holes dichotomy here. The optics of military vessels intercepting civilian vessels, those aren’t great. Plus, you don’t want those conflicts to escalate into naval conflict. So, if you’re using your civilian fleets, the white holes, it’s supposedly less likely to escalate into an actual military conflict. For the most part, using those kinds of lower-level white hole civilian fishing vessels and Coast Guards is less incendiary. But at the same time, it’s really hard to reach any kind of agreement on fisheries in the South China Sea because these issues aren’t just about fisheries.

They’re also about maritime claims. If you’ve got your fishing vessels, asserting presence in the South China Sea and your Coast Guard there to supposedly enforce those fishing regulations, then it’s not just about creating an equitable solution for distributing the fisheries resources. Plus, one of the roadblocks to achieving any kind of agreement around the South China Sea is that China has stated that they would like to pursue some kind of joint development. But at the same time, their precondition for that is for the other claimant states to acknowledge that China has sovereignty or jurisdiction over the region, which other countries are hesitant to do. So, it’s kind of at a stalemate. There’s just a lack of political will to work out any kind of effective agreement to manage the fisheries there.
Have people who are watching the region noticed that as fish stocks are dwindling, that’s correlated to more, not necessarily aggressive, but more frequent trips into these contested waters or more insistent claims to those parts of the South China Sea where there are fish stocks?

Mallory: Yes, so I think both of the issues are really intertwined. There is the decrease in resources as a real driver of the fleets going farther to fish. So, the cost per unit effort is going up. They’re just having to work harder to catch any fish. So that also creates this pressure to assert presence and control over certain areas that you can control those resources. But it’s very complicated by the fact that there’s just these unresolved maritime disputes there as well that are based on the features themselves and in some ways, it’s driven by the resource needs. But on the other hand, sometimes the resource needs are used as an excuse to assert control over those areas. One of the other really big resources in the South China Sea is the oil, the hydrocarbon resources in the seabed. That’s really taken up a lot of the attention of the claimant states, since initially that’s what they’re after. I would argue that the fish resources in the long-term are more valuable because you can manage them sustainably. They don’t contribute to climate change the way hydrocarbon resources do. They’re not as destructive to the marine environment by drilling in the seabed. It’s really this kind of entangled knots of all these different interests. Sometimes, the leverage is put on fisheries as a resource need. Sometimes it’s an excuse for other priorities.
The Bureau of fisheries in Beijing has argued that China’s fishing industry is simply responding to the demand for seafood from developed countries. What is the role of the United States in the overexploitation of fisheries?

Mallory: Yes, so China in the past, and still does to a certain extent, does sell to more developed areas like the European Union, Japan, the United States. Those are the areas that are known for their really high demand for seafood. But the Chinese now are actually shipping a lot more of their cash back home to China from their distant water fleet, and they’ve started to build up a retail industry in China to market that seafood back home. They also are importing a lot more seafood as well from different countries. Just as the average consumer in China has more discretionary income and wants more luxury goods, you’re seeing a rise in consumption of sushi, for example. There’s also some skepticism about food safety in China. So, people have more trust in imported food products. That includes seafood.

In terms of the U.S., they play a really large role in consumer demand for seafood. But we actually don’t know a great deal of detail about where that comes from and how sustainable those imports are. There’s one widely heard statistic that the U.S. imports 90% of its seafood. That’s a lot. But there’s a recent study that showed that, in fact, only about 62% to 65% of U.S. seafood imports are coming from foreign sources. That’s because what the U.S. is doing is taking a lot of its own catch and sending it abroad for processing and then re-importing it. For example, the U.S. has a really big Pollock industry. So, we’ll take that and ship it to China where it’s processed into fish nuggets, and then we re-import those. But the country of origin might not be the U.S. It might say China, and in many cases it does because of the value-added through the processing. It becomes a product that comes from China on the label. So, we’re not properly accounting for that. Having a little bit more detail about how that trade works would be really useful. That’s another example of lack of transparency, in terms of how much volume is in what category for these seafood imports and exports?

The U.S. has taken steps to address this. In the last couple of years, they started the Seafood Import Monitoring Program. But there’s still a lot of issues that we need to work out, in terms of seafood traceability. For example, if you go to a restaurant, just kind of an average restaurant, not that any of us are really going to restaurants anytime recently because of COVID, but if you’ve asked your server, “Do you know if this fish that I wanna order is sustainable?” Or even, “Was this caught by pole and line, or was it caught by trawl?” Your server is going to have no idea. I’ve tried it. Most people don’t know, unless you go to a restaurant that has specifically identified that as a priority. So, there’s still a lot of work to do. Things are moving in the right direction, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done.

Having worked in a few different restaurants before, I don’t think even the chef or the manager will know anything about where the fish originally came from. It really would surprise people how much of their fish is just brought in frozen from somewhere, on a truck delivered and then it’s put in a deep freezer. So that’s very interesting.

Mallory: I’ve also looked on Amazon, and if I’m trying to, as a consumer, just order some frozen fish, there’s just no information about the country of origin and so on.

And is that really because there’s not that much national regulation stipulating that these companies have to publish this information or make it readily available?

Mallory: Right. So, they’re just not demanding that level of detail. And then there’s also that issue of the processing adding value. What I’ve heard is if you’re adding 40% or more of the value to the product through processing, then you can say it comes from your country. So, you really need to differentiate between the country that caught the fish versus the country that processed it, or what’s known as the country of consignment. Those regulations don’t exist right now.
How have China and the United States been involved in solutions to the problems that the world’s fisheries are facing, that we’re causing? And how can they cooperate further in the future?

Mallory: So, there was a really interesting arrangement that started in 1995, and it was the U.S.-China ship writer agreement, and that was to patrol high seas driftnet fishing of anathemas fish stocks. So those are stocks like salmon. It was a Coast Guard partnership, so it allowed for the U.S. and China to board each other’s Coast Guard vessels to patrol illegal fishing in the North Pacific. They made some really good apprehensions of people engaged in illegal fishing, and not that long ago either. But because of the tensions between the U.S. and China currently, my understanding is that there’s really not much going on on that front. I think it’s either temporarily or more permanently discontinued. So, it would be very hard, unfortunately, to expand anything like that. But I always thought that was a really great example of how we could work together. Then under the Obama administration, when the strategic and economic dialogues were happening, the last couple of years of that dialogue, there was an ocean sidetrack. This was devoted just to these ocean issues. I thought that was really a great way to make progress on some of these issues. That’s not going on anymore, and I would love to see something like that continued. I think there’s potential for the U.S. to cooperate with China on improving seafood traceability. So, one of the issues is there’s a mismatch in customs codes between the U.S. and China on seafood trade.

That’s part of the issue with keeping that traceability if you’re sending fish to China to process and then re-importing it. If the customs codes, the HS codes don’t line up, that makes it really hard to keep track of that trade. We can partner on IUU fishing. The U.S., in addition to that recent SIMP Act, is also trying to make some progress on the Maritime SAFE Act, the Seafood and Fisheries Enforcement Act, and China also recently has made a lot of progress on IUU fishing, at least in terms of their laws. So, they’ve incorporated some language about IUU fishing in the recent distant water fishing regulations, that regulate the distant water fishing industry. There’s some language on that in the draft of their new fisheries law or the revised fisheries law. The Chinese have stated that this is an important issue. Compared to 10 years ago, the Chinese were denying that they had any problems with IUU fishing. So, this is a big step. I think because these priorities match, there’s a lot of room for cooperation. The other thing is, marine environment, it’s one of the few areas I think that is remaining in this tense period of U.S., China relations, where we can have constructive cooperation because it’s not as politically sensitive compared to other issues, like human rights, for example, as a starting point.

Also, marine environment isn’t as high tech as some other industries. So, there’s less fear that the Chinese could be stealing U.S. technology on stuff like this. With the possible exception of Oceanography, which tends to be high tech, but things like better management of fish stocks, there’s not a lot of technology. In fact, it’s like, “Yes, please steal good methods of management. Let’s learn from each other here.” I’m concerned that when the U.S. is halting academic collaborations, and putting a limit on this kind of exchange, which is heightened, of course, by COVID and the travel restrictions there, that areas like marine environment will also face obstacles in terms of making progress on some of these issues. But I do think there’s a lot that we can still do with China and other areas, like figuring out ways to protect sensitive areas on the high seas, because we have a lot of these shared interests. I think it’s really important that progress continue on this front. It can also serve as an example for other areas of contention too.
Are China and the U.S. involved and active in any key international organizations, be it the UN or other environmental-focused organizations that are doing something to coordinate activity, protecting this resource?

Mallory: Yes. So, I don’t think right now that there’s any forum that was like that ocean sidetrack in the SMED, where you’re talking about U.S.-China cooperation across a wide range of ocean activities. So, I think it would be useful to bring something like that back. There was a lot of criticism about the SMED being so high level that not that much was accomplished, but I do think that level really matters too. That kind of high-level exchange and the commitments made there, that are then delegated to the more functional staff that implement them, I think that’s really important. Otherwise, there are a lot of venues that bring the U.S. and China together on these different specific issues. The WTO right now is hosting, they have been for many years, a series of meetings to remove fishery subsidies. So, they’re working together through that. The UN also has had a series of conferences to figure out an agreement on managing biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction called BBNJ. Again, this is with a lot of other countries, but the U.S. and China will be present at those. The U.S. and China are also participating in different Regional Fisheries Management organization meetings. These are our FMOs that manage specific fisheries or specific regions for a few different fish stocks.

Take tuna, for example. There’s a lot of tuna in our FMOs. So, the U.S, and China will interact there. China is hosting the convention on biodiversity. The CBD was supposed to be this year, but it’s put off until next year. That’s biodiversity, in general, so it’s not just marine biodiversity. But it’s an opportunity for China as the host to make some progress, and hopefully, the U.S. will go to that and there’ll be some progress there. The U.S. was hosting the Our Oceans conference. At the last one in Indonesia, the Chinese didn’t attend that, unfortunately. So that was, I think, a lost opportunity. But yes, there are some other international organizations that will bring both the U.S. and China to the table.