World's fish stocks inflated due to China's reporting, researchers say: False figures leading to overfishing
Edmonton Journal , 29 Nov 2001

The sole tally of the world's fish stocks is being wildly overstated as a result of fishy statistics from China, a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia suggests.

For more than a decade, China has been exaggerating catch reports, leading scientists to believe there's a healthy number of fish in the sea, says an article to be published Thursday in the science journal Nature.

Despite local evidence that fish stocks are overexploited, figures from the United Nations have long suggested worldwide catches rose 330,000 tonnes a year throughout the 1990s. Those numbers have helped to foster a false sense of security about the health of international fish stocks, says the article by researchers Reg Watson and Daniel Pauly.

In fact, China's doctored numbers have been artificially driving up the tally, which has actually declined by some 360,000 tonnes a year since 1988, Watson said in an interview. "The catches are much higher than you'd expect, inexplicably higher," Watson said of China's annual catch reports, which account for roughly 18 per cent of the world's total.

"There really is no oceanographic feature that we've looked at that explains the high catch."

There is a socio-political feature unique to China that may explain it: mid-level government officials who tended to get promotions on the basis of meeting production targets. "This is a system where more is better," Watson said. "They actually get promotions and in fact, it's virtually required to reach production targets and these are increased every year."

As a result, global figures -- relied on by banks, investment firms and conservation experts to determine economic and environmental policy -- are seriously out of whack.

Decisions based on the false belief that fish stocks are healthy could be disastrous, Watson warned. "When companies in the North Sea decide that they're going to have another supertrawler despite all objections, they can point to this kind of message and say, 'But everything's OK, we've been told there's fish out there on the world's seas and we can go out there and get it.' "

Watson described the experience of one fishing company whose supertrawler went from one barren sea to another in a futile search for fish.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has long suspected something was amiss, but China has repeatedly refused to discuss any concerns about a problem.