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China’s distant-water fishing fleet: scale, impact and governance

Research report

Written by Miren Gutierrez, Guy Jobbins

Hero image description: Workers offload frozen, net-caught tuna onto waiting trucks from a Panamanian-flagged reefer cargo vessel owned by a Chinese company (Manila, Philippines) Image credit:Adam Dean Image license:© Panos

Having depleted fish stocks in domestic waters, the fleets of many industrialised countries are now travelling further afield to meet the rising demand for seafood. Much of this distant-water fishing (DWF) takes place in the territorial waters of low-income countries. As well as competing against the interests of local people, DWF in low-income countries is often associated with unsustainable levels of extraction, and with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. China’s DWF fleet is the largest in the world, but little information is available about its actual size and the scale of its operations. It is also unclear whether the Government of China has a comprehensive overview of China’s DWF fleet; vessel ownership is highly fragmented among many small companies and the fleet includes vessels registered in other jurisdictions. 

Key findings

  • With 16,966 vessels, China’s DWF fleet is 5–8 times larger than previous estimates.  
  • Trawlers are the most common DWF vessel, and most vessels are in the Northwest Pacific. 
  • Almost 1,000 Chinese DWF vessels are registered in other countries.  
  • The ownership and operational control of China’s DWF fleet is both complex and opaque. 
  • At least 183 vessels in China’s DWF fleet are suspected of involvement in IUU fishing.  


The Government of China can take steps to demonstrate global leadership on the governance of DWF, sustainability of global fisheries and combatting IUU. Steps might include: 

  • improving the registration and transparency of DWF vessels, as well as owning and operating companies;
  • adopting higher standards such as ratification of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), as a flag state;
  • stricter regulation and enforcement of DWF operations; and
  • strengthening bilateral cooperation with states where Chinese DWF vessels fish.

Our findings also highlight the need for more effective regional and global action. International bodies and agencies can:

  • upgrade capacity for monitoring, information sharing and enforcement;
  • take proactive measures to disrupt IUU stocks from entering international supply chains; and
  • support governance capacity in coastal developing states.

More work is needed to explore the ecological, social and economic impacts of China’s DWF fleet in developing countries, and to investigate the behaviour of transnational companies engaged in DWF, particularly those registered in flag-of-convenience states and tax havens.

Miren Gutierrez, Alfonso Daniels, Guy Jobbins, Guillermo Gutierrez Almazor and César Montenegro