2 October 2018

Dear Editor

The article, China’s super trawlers are stripping the ocean bare as its hunger for seafood grows, published online on 30 September 2018 by ABC China Correspondent, Mr Matthew Carney, makes a number of misleading, untrue and internally inconsistent claims about the sustainability of global fisheries, the current health of China’s fish stocks and risks posed by larger fishing vessels.

The article claims that the UN FAO “estimates 90 per cent of them [world fisheries] have collapsed and China is the major player in their demise”.  These claims are simply not supported by any FAO statements either with respect to the health of global fisheries or the role of China.  For ease of reference the latest FAO reports can be found here:

http://www.fao.org/state-of-fisheries-aquaculture

http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf

The latest FAO report clearly states that 66.9% of global fish stocks are being fished within biologically sustainable levels.  This is a considerable decrease over the previous reports, and any decline should be cause for concern, but the ABC claim that the FAO estimates that 90% of fisheries have collapsed is demonstrably false.  The graphic below, from the FAO’s 2018 The state of the world fisheries and aquaculture (see: http://www.fao.org/state-of-fisheries-aquaculture), clearly shows the level of biologically sustainable global fishing as at 2015.

Unfortunately, the statistic used in this ABC article bears a striking resemblance to false and misleading claims from some environmental non-government organisations (eNGOs) that combine the status of fish stocks that are optimally fished (i.e. where fish stocks are harvested sustainably but there is little or no room for increases in harvest) with those that are, or have been, subject to overfishing.  Those eNGO groups seemingly combine these categories in an effort to mislead an audience into believing that 90% of fish stocks are being overexploited.  Thankfully, the quote attributed to Greenpeace’s Ms Zhou Wei, does make reference to the fact that the 90% figure includes stocks that are “fully exploited” as well as those that are overexploited so it was only Mr Carney who reported the wrong information.  Greenpeace’s claim is just misleading.

Similarly, even a brief review of the historic FAO reports shows that China was not the major player in global overfishing trends.  While large increases in the capacity of China’s fishing fleet are certainly cause for concern if regulation and management proves inadequate, other nations were more responsible for the historic global overfishing. 

The article also refers to deep sea fishing as being a practice that “strip mines the world’s oceans”.  This is an emotive comparison at best which misrepresents fishing (which utilises renewable resources and relies on a healthy ecosystem for its’ ongoing survival) as being analogous to a method of mining of non-renewable resources using intensive environmental disturbance.  This comparison is unsubstantiated and unfair. 

The article also suggests that larger boats are the major, or even only, problem when overfishing is something we have seen in global fisheries of all types, even those with the most simplistic methods and gear.  When it comes to sustainability of fish stocks, it is the ultimately the size of the catch that matters.  The various combinations of size and number of fishing boats (or the flag they fly) is inconsequential for biological sustainability if their catch is kept within sustainable limits and the habitat is maintained.  Vilifying boats of a certain size or from a certain country is a geo-political game, not a biological one.  The article leads readers to believe that big boats are bad when it is in fact overfishing that is bad regardless of the source.   

The graphic below, published in Science Advances journal (see: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat2504), outlines the main methods of fishing used by high-seas vessels globally. This further reinforces that the claims made in Mr Carney’s article that Chinese “super trawler” vessels are the biggest culprits when it comes to overfishing are false. There are clearly multiple methods used to undertake commercial fishing globally, and in the case of China, trawling makes up only a small portion overall.

Mr Carney’s article also states, “The seas around China have virtually no fish left…”.  This is clearly ludicrous given the FAO statistics reportedly drawn upon elsewhere and other information about fish stocks in the north-east Pacific Ocean.  It also contradicted by statements elsewhere in the article.

Unfortunately, Mr Carney’s article bears the hallmarks of some of the exaggerated, false and misleading claims peddled by a small group of anti-fishing eNGOs.  It would appear that the preparation of the article may have drawn on material from such groups without adequate fact checking.  We ask that Mr Carney and the ABC fact check and correct the article as soon as possible given the damage it may cause to the publics views about the sustainability of global fisheries, including those in Australia. The current status of Commonwealth fisheries and Australian fisheries can be found here (ABARES 2018 Fishery status reports) and here (FRDC Status of Australian fish stocks reports 2016).

Yours sincerely

Dr James Findlay

Chief Executive Officer

Australian Fisheries Management Authority