Million-dollar croaker haul highlights urgent need for quota

In mid-January, a team of two trawlers with a crew of 16 from Zhejiang province caught nearly two and a half tonnes of large yellow croaker (Larimichthys crocea) in a single haul in the East China Sea. They sold the catch for more than 9.5 million yuan (about US$1.5 million), nearly 4,000 yuan ($630) per kilogram. The stunning price is down to demand in a pre-Chinese New Year market and the extreme rarity of wild populations of the species. Large yellow croaker is a delicacy in China. Farmed fish are common and are currently sold at about 50 yuan per kilo.

Experts warn the boats seem to have got the bonanza from a croaker wintering ground, and the individuals they have netted are likely to be parent fish about to lay eggs. Although such big catches are a sign of population recovery, intensive fishing outside of summer closures could end it. The two trawlers are far from the only ones trying their luck in nearby waters with electronic fish finders.

China set up a summer closure system for coastal fishing in the 1990s, and it’s been increasingly strict. But that doesn’t prevent “compensating overfishing” outside the closed season. 

Experts are calling for the protection of wintering grounds and banning of trawling in coastal waters. But the most commonly shared sense of urgency is directed at establishing a fishing quota system based on annual stock surveys. One expert says even if the system was established tomorrow, the quota for large yellow croaker “should be zero in the coming years,” because it’s too early to say if its population has recovered. It still takes time, repopulation efforts and strong regulation, combined with marine ranching as a replacement for fishing.

China has been trialing fishing quotas since 2017 in Shandong and Zhejiang provinces. But as one expert who worked on the trials told China Dialogue in 2020, multiple factors set its formal establishment back. One problem is lack of data on fish populations due to inconsistent surveying. Another is too many vessels, making it hard to allocate total allowable catch among them.

Reach China Dialogue’s recent report on efforts to combine offshore wind and fish farms.