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 marine protection efforts, at least in its internal waters, has remained elusive, even for many experts in China. Today, an international group of researchers have compiled the first database of marine conservation efforts in the country, and it is larger than expected.
Ellen Pikitch, who studies ocean conservation at Stony Brook University in New York City, began studying Chinese marine protected areas (MPAs) after learning about them at a China fisheries workshop in 2014. ” I was surprised because I have worked on ocean conservation for a long time but had never heard of it, ”she says.
China does not have a publicly accessible database on its marine conservation areas, and the country has only listed about 15 in the Global Database on Protected Areas, which is managed by the Union. International for Nature Conservation. So Pikitch joined forces with colleagues, including Guifang Xue, a law professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who helped draft legislation for some Chinese MPAs, and they built their own database.
Since there was no single source they could go to to learn more about the various MPAs in China, the team instead spent months browsing through old books, reports and press releases, and consulted with a variety of government agencies and officials at the national, provincial, and municipal levels. They also visited around 30 different protected areas to get a better idea of how they are managed. “It was really like putting a puzzle together,” Pikitch explains.
In the end, the team found that China has 326 protected areas covering almost 13% of its territorial waters, and they’re still not entirely sure they’ve found them all. This exceeds the target of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity of protecting 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Many countries have now extended this target to 30% by 2030, although China does not did not make this 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 zones are designed to protect rare or threatened species and ecosystems. This is followed by Special Marine Protected Areas, which focus on the sustainable use of sensitive or scarce natural resources. Special marine protected areas enable research, aquaculture, ecotourism and sustainable fishing. The least strict category is that of reserves of aquatic genetic material. These sites protect commercially valuable fish species by targeting important breeding and nursery sites, as well as migration routes.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Pikitch and his team found that while so-called paper parks – MPAs that exist on paper but have little to no application – are a big deal for marine conservation around the world, this does not seem to be a problem in China. “All of them are implemented, with staff, a management plan, regular surveys and many even have interpretation centers,” Pikitch explains. “None is a paper park. “
With most of China’s national fisheries in poor shape after decades of overfishing, Pikitch says this network of MPAs and other conservation areas could be a starting point for recovery. “This is perhaps one of the best hopes for China to restore its marine ecosystem,” she said.
Philip Chou, senior science and strategy adviser at the Oceana marine conservation group, points out that there are still gaps in China’s network of protected areas. In particular, he says, there isn’t much protection for ecosystems in deeper waters.
In China, 22 percent of shallow habitats in waters less than 10 meters deep are fully or highly protected, and 20 percent of waters 10 to 50 meters deep are conserved to some extent. However, less than five percent of China’s deep waters are protected. Habitats such as submarine canyons and seamounts beyond the continental shelf have no protection. Protecting these areas could be politically difficult, he says, as this is where the country’s industrial fleet fishes.
China’s industrial fleet also has a bad track record of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, and exploiting the coasts of developing countries by entering into unfair or opaque access agreements. Having strong home storage protections needs to be paired with better practices internationally, Chou says.
“China could play a huge role in marine protection because it is present in all oceans,” he said. “But I don’t feel like they’re up to it yet.”