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China, as the world’s largest producer and consumer of seafood, is well known for its voracious international fishing fleet. But a comprehensive understanding of the country’s efforts on marine protection, at least in its domestic waters, has remained elusive—even to many experts within China. Now, an international group of researchers has compiled the first database of marine conservation efforts in the country, and it is more extensive than many expected.
Ellen Pikitch, who studies ocean conservation at Stony Brook University in New York, first started looking into China’s marine protected areas (MPAs) after she learned of their existence at a fisheries workshop in China in 2014. “I was surprised because I have worked on ocean conservation for a long time but had never heard of them,” she says.
China does not have a publicly available database of its marine conservation areas, and the country has only entered about 15 into the World Database on Protected Areas, which is run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So Pikitch teamed up with colleagues including Guifang Xue, a law professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University who has helped write the legislation for some of China’s MPAs, and they built their own database.
Since there was no single source that they could consult to learn about China’s various MPAs, the team instead spent months trawling through old books, news reports, and press releases, and consulted a variety of different government agencies and officials at the national, provincial, and municipal levels. They also visited about 30 different protected areas to get a better idea of how they are managed. “It was really like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” says Pikitch.
In the end, the team found that China has 326 protected areas covering almost 13 percent of its territorial waters—and they are still not entirely sure they found all of them. That exceeds the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s target of protecting 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Many countries have now expanded that target to 30 percent by 2030, though China has not made that commitment.
The research describes China’s marine conservation areas as falling into three main categories. Marine nature reserves offer the most protection; these no-take areas are designed to protect rare or endangered species and ecosystems. Next are special marine protected areas, which focus on the sustainable use of sensitive or rare natural resources. Special marine protected areas allow for research, aquaculture, ecotourism, and some sustainable fishing. The least stringent category is aquatic germplasm reserves. These sites protect commercially valuable fish species by targeting important breeding and nursery grounds, as well as migration routes.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Pikitch and her team found that while so-called paper parks—MPAs that exist on paper but have little to no enforcement—are a big problem for marine conservation around the world, that does not appear to be an issue in China. “All of them are implemented, with staff, a management plan, regular surveys, and many even have interpretive centers,” Pikitch says. “None are paper parks.”
With most of China’s domestic fisheries in poor shape after decades of overfishing, Pikitch says this network of MPAs and other conservation areas could be a jumping-off point for recovery. “This may be one of the best hopes for China to restore its marine ecosystem,” she says.
Philip Chou, a senior advisor for science and strategy with the marine conservation group Oceana, points out that there are still gaps in China’s protected area network. In particular, he says, there is not much protection for ecosystems in deeper waters.
In China, 22 percent of shallow habitats in water less than 10 meters deep are fully or highly protected, and 20 percent of waters 10 to 50 meters deep are conserved to some degree. Less than five percent of China’s deep waters, however, are protected. Habitats such as underwater canyons and seamounts beyond the continental shelf have no protection. Protecting those areas could be politically difficult, he says, because that is where the country’s industrial fleet is fishing.
China’s industrial fleet also has a bad track record when it comes to illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, and exploiting the coasts of developing countries by engaging in inequitable or opaque access agreements. Having strong conservation protections at home needs to be coupled with better practices internationally, says Chou.
“China could have a tremendous role in marine protection because they are present in every ocean,” he says. “But I don’t feel they are stepping up to the plate yet.”