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How China is poised for marine fisheries reform

January 16, 2017

As global fish stocks continue sinking to alarmingly low levels, a joint study by marine fisheries experts from within and outside of China concluded that the country's most recent fisheries conservation plan can achieve a true paradigm shift in marine fisheries management - but only if the Chinese government embraces major institutional reform.

The researchers, led by Stanford University's Ling Cao and Rosamond Naylor, published their perspective piece "Opportunity for Marine Fisheries Reform in China," in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The researchers examined the history of Chinese government priorities, policies, and outcomes related to marine fisheries since China's 1978 Economic Reform, and examined how its leaders' agenda for "ecological civilization" could successfully transform marine resource management in the coming years.

"The goal of our research was to explore the opportunities for marine fisheries reform in China that arise from their 13th Five-Year Plan and show how the best available science can be used in the design and implementation of fisheries management in China's coastal and ocean ecosystems," said Cao, a Research Scholar with Stanford's Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The most recent plan provides a policy platform for the protection of marine ecosystems and the restoration of fisheries within China's exclusive economic zone - an area of coastal water and seabed to which China claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling, and other economic activities. They found that while China has attempted to reverse the trend of declining fish stocks in the past, serious institutional reforms are needed to achieve a true shift in marine fisheries management. The authors recommend new institutions for science-based fisheries management, secure fishing access, policy consistency across provinces, educational programs for fisheries managers, and increasing public access to scientific data.

The paper emphasizes the cultural norms that underpin China's fisheries management - norms that are often overlooked and misunderstood by Western scientists. "China will follow its own cultural norms in governing its fisheries resources," observed Roz Naylor, FSE Director and William Wrigley Professor in Earth System Science at Stanford University. "Understanding cultural differences will promote a stronger international community in marine science and sustainable fisheries management."

As China accounts for almost one-fifth of global catch volume, it has made great efforts to carry out conservation and management of fisheries resources by adopting and practicing various measures over the past three decades. The government is introducing a series of new programs for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, with greater traceability and accountability in marine resource management and area controls on coastal development. The most recent plan notably includes marine ecosystem protection as a significant component of the central government's environmental agenda.

The timing of this research comes at a unique phase in China's fisheries conservation strategy as they recently introduced specific goals for both the Ocean and Fisheries Five-Year Plans.

"The Chinese government is poised to take serious action on marine ecosystem management," Cao said. "Time is of the essence."

Although the paper's authors view China's efforts as a signal of dedication toward furthering fisheries conservation, they hope their perspective paper helps highlight the need for true institutional reform in order to see the Chinese government's goals realized.

"Fisheries management and resource conservation is a complex undertaking. To rebuild China's depleted fisheries, serious institutional reforms are needed. The road ahead is still long," said co-author Yingqi Zhou from Shanghai Ocean University.
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Ling Cao is a research scholar with the Center on Food Security and the Environment, and a faculty member of the Institute of Oceanography at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Rosamond Naylor is the director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, William Wrigley Professor of Earth Science at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

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