All fished out but hungry for more
After a run-in with North Koreans in May, Sun Caihui, the owner of a trawler business in Dalian, in Liaoning province, wanted rid of his four boats. Now, emboldened by his nation's government, he has changed his mind.
The incident involved the impounding by North Korean authorities of one of his vessels for 13 days, and threats to kill the crew if Sun did not pay 400,000 yuan (HK$490,000) in ransom.
Chinese government pressure on the North Koreans led to the vessel's release, but when it and the three other ships returned to port, Sun found that the crew had been beaten and that anything of value - from fuel to fishing nets - had been taken.
'I will never send my ships into the troubled waters again. I am selling them,' Sun said shortly after the ship's recovery.
But, speaking on the phone last week, Sun said he had changed his mind. 'The government has organised fishermen to go to North Korean waters and we will be protected by Chinese law-enforcement vessels. I am waiting for them to decide when to go,' he said.
'We must return there because there are no fish left in our waters.'
In recent decades, China's offshore commercial fishing has declined rapidly, driving fishermen further out to sea in search of catches. In Sun's village, for example, fishermen who went to nearby traditional fishing grounds returned with empty nets.
'In the beginning the decline was slow,' Sun said. But, 'beginning three or four years ago, it dropped really fast. Now, almost every offshore fishing ground has been abandoned because there's nothing to catch.'
It is the same story all along China's 2,500-kilometre coastline, from Korea Bay in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin in the southeast.
'It has become a national phenomenon and it has become dramatically worse in the past decade,' said Zeng Xiaoqi , professor at the Ocean University of China's Fishery College, in Qingdao , Shandong .
The distant waters to which Chinese fishermen are being increasingly driven border countries such as North and South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Sometimes Chinese fishing boats venture into another country's undisputed waters; sometimes they operate in disputed areas and are driven back, checked, arrested and even shot at by fisheries protection or coastguard vessels.
The disputes are affected relations with many of China's neighbours. The Philippine government has criticised China for its aggressive handling of the stand-off at Scarborough Shoal, or Huangyan Island as China calls it, which lies within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The two countries engaged in a month-long stand-off after Chinese fishermen entered the area in April. The confrontation ended with the withdrawal of Philippine vessels as China put pressure on Manila, including the threat of economic sanctions. Tensions eased in mid-May after China imposed its annual 10-week ban on fishing in the northern part of the South China Sea, but Beijing said fisheries bureau and naval vessels would stay in the area during the ban, which runs out today.
Elsewhere, protests erupted earlier this year in Vietnam after some of its fishermen were arrested and fined by Chinese law enforcers patrolling in disputed waters. South Korea, Japan and Palau have lodged diplomatic protests with China over fishing disputes. In each case China responded by claiming historic sovereign rights to the waters in question, which its neighbours dispute, saying they conflict with its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Meanwhile, China's appetite for seafood continues to drive the expansion of its fishing fleet. Sun said that every year, more than 20 new boats moor at his home port in Dalian to pursue what is presumably still a lucrative business.
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, China is the world's biggest producer and consumer of seafood. It produced 50 million tonnes of marine fish in 2009, against domestic consumption of more than 54 million tonnes. In India, another rapidly developing economy whose population nearly rivals China, only 7.85 million tonnes of seafood were produced. The United States consumed about 2.5 million tonnes of seafood in 2009.
According to the FOA, China's seafood production was only about 5.6 million tonnes in 1981, but with soaring economic development and the improvement in people's living standards, output has expanded.
'The increase in China's domestic demand for seafood has played an important role in the diminishing fish stocks in offshore waters,' Zeng said.
Pollution has also wiped out much of the fish in inshore waters.
The main pollutants entering Chinese waters are chemicals such as phosphorus, metals such as copper, and crude oil, according to the State Oceanic Administration. A large amount of waste water is also dumped directly offshore without treatment, not only wiping out many marine species but triggering red tides which kill millions of fish by depleting the water's oxygen content.
Almost every stretch of coast that has remained clean has been taken over by developers. Scenic beaches and shorelines are eagerly sought after by hotel and property developers.
However, according to Zeng, the greatest destruction of China's offshore ecological system can be blamed on fish farms.
He said the offshore waters used to be a paradise for fish because major rivers such as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers carried plenty of sediment and nutrients to the sea, providing suitable breeding grounds for many species of fish. But the spread of fish farms over these habitats has either driven the wild fish to extinction or forced them to move elsewhere.
'The entire ecological balance in Chinese offshore waters has been wrecked. The destruction has been going on for at least two decades but its deadly consequence only surfaced in recent years,' Zeng said. 'We are surrounded by a strip of death.'
As the fishermen trawl more distant waters and run into disputes as they do so, nationalist sentiments are being inflamed in China and the other countries involved.
Zhang Mingliang, a professor at Jinan University and an expert on South China Sea conflicts, said that China and other countries would have less room for diplomatic manoeuvring in the future as every fishing dispute could easily turn into a political incident rather than an economic issue.
Some state-run newspapers in China had been pushing public sentiment towards conflict - even war - by proposing the use of military action to resolve these disputes, he said.
There would be both pros and cons for China if a small-scale war broke out in the South China Sea, according to Zhang.
'The good thing is that the government can use nationalism as an excuse and take all disputed islands, once and for all, by force. Too many Chinese islands have been taken by other countries in the South China Sea and China will have to solve the problem sooner or later,' he said.
'The downside is that a war will ruin China's reputation in international society. It will also turn many neighbours into enemies.
'And remember, the appetite of nationalists for territory is unlimited. Once they have one island, they want the next until China has taken control of every island it claims in the South China Sea,' Zhang said.
The number of seafood enterprises in Shandong province with revenue of more than 5 million yuan, according to Beijing Zeefer Consulting
Two Chinese fishing boats with 36 fishermen on board from Weihai in Shandong were detained by Russian maritime officials off Russia?s far eastern coast on July 15 and 16. The men are set to be released in the next few days.
A North Korean boat hijacked three Chinese vessels from Dalian with 29 sailors on board allegedly in Chinese waters and demanded 1.2 million yuan for their release on May 8. The crew and vessels were sent back to Dalian on May 21. There was no word on whether the ransom had been paid.
Nine Chinese sailors were detained in a stand-off between the South Korean coastguard and a Chinese vessel suspected of illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea on April 30. Four South Korean officials were injured. The Chinese ship?s captain and his navigator were arrested and fined 15 million won (HK$100,000) before being released on May 1. Another seven sailors were freed.
A South Korean coastguard officer was killed and another injured when they attempted to seize a Chinese vessel in the Yellow Sea on December 12 last year. Cheng Dawei, who stabbed the Korean officer to death, was jailed for 30 years and fined 20 million won on April 19. The other nine crew members were jailed for between 18 months and five years.
Several Chinese fishing boats were said to have been harassed by the Philippine navy in waters near Scarborough Shoal on April 10. They were rescued by Chinese marine surveillance ships.
A Chinese fishing boat?s towing lines became entangled with the propeller of a Philippine navy vessel in waters off the Spratly Islands on October 18 last year. The navy said the Chinese vessel was in Philippine territory.
Thirteen Chinese sailors were allegedly beaten by South Korean coastguard officers when their vessel was detained in waters south of Jeju Island on July 17 last year. The owner of the vessel paid 80 million won in bail and was also left to pay hospital expenses. The crew went back to Zhejiang on January 27.
A Chinese vessel was detained by the Japanese coastguard for illegally operating in Japanese waters off the Goto Islands in southwestern Nagasaki Prefecture on December 20 last year. A Japanese court ruled a week later that the ship had been illegally operating in Japanese territorial waters.
Six Chinese fishermen were arrested by the Philippine navy for illegally fishing in waters near Palawan on December 2 last year. They were accused in a Philippine court on December 5 of catching endangered sea turtles in the country?s territorial waters.
A Chinese fisherman was shot dead by Palau police when officers attempted to stop his vessel fishing in Palau waters on March 31. The boat?s other 25 crew members were detained. The fishermen conceded they had entered Palau waters illegally and were fined US$1,000 each. They went back to China on April 18.