False reporting exaggerates fish stocks: study
St. Johns Telegram, 29 Nov 2001

TORONTO - 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.

Indications that China has been exaggerating catch reports for more than a decade means fish stocks have fallen far further since 1988 than previously thought, says an article to be published today in the science journal Nature.

Despite local evidence that fish stocks are overexploited, figures from the United Nations have long suggested worldwide catches were on the rise throughout the 1990s.

In fact, it's all because China's doctored numbers have been driving up the tally, says the article by researchers Reg Watson and Daniel Pauly.


``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 -- capable of scooping up in days what entire fleets would take months to haul in -- went from one barren sea to another in a futile search for fish. ``The information we've been relying on has been faulty,'' he said. ``Instead of the world global catch staying constant or perhaps even rising, it actually has been dropping. It has been dropping since about 1988.''

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

Watson devised a statistical model to predict catch rates in various parts of the world. Most regions reported catch rates that corresponded to the model's predictions. China did not. The model predicted the region, where major fish populations had long been classified as overexploited, would produce 5.5 million tonnes in 1999. But that same year, China reported catching 10.1 million tonnes.


Wan Cheng, a spokesman for the Chinese Agricultural Ministry's Fisheries Department, said the government stopped two years ago offering county and provincial officials job promotions based on growth.

``Local government officials have no incentive to inflate their fishing output. Therefore, we believe there is no intentional overreporting of statistics, but only some possible statistical defects,'' Wan said.

The government put into effect a ``zero growth'' policy that catch reports from oceans should not exceed 1998 levels of about 35 billion pounds of fish and shellfish per year.