China announces closed season on squid spawning grounds

Will temporary bans for China’s distant-water fleet in the Atlantic and Pacific help squid populations?
<p>Humboldt squid, one of two species the closed seasons aim to protect (Image: Alamy)</p>

Humboldt squid, one of two species the closed seasons aim to protect (Image: Alamy)

In early June, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries announced plans for two closed seasons on squid fishing in parts of the south-west Atlantic and eastern Pacific, to give two species a better chance of reproducing.

The closed seasons cover what are believed to be the main spawning grounds of the Humboldt squid, in waters to the west of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, from September to November, and of the Argentine shortfin squid, off Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, from July to September.

This is the first time China has voluntarily imposed a closed season on the high seas. Some experts regard it as an important step forward in China’s management of distant-water fishing (DWF), and crucial for protecting the squid fishing industry. But others say the impact will be limited and that stronger oversight of fishing vessels is needed, or even a new fisheries management body specifically for squid.

china's distant water squid fishing map

Two overexploited species

Unlike fish such as tuna, the 10 major commercially fished squid species have a lifespan of only a year and die after spawning. Population sizes are therefore particularly vulnerable to external factors. The El Niño weather pattern and other changes in the ocean environment can cause numbers to fluctuate by a factor of ten. Squid are also threatened by overfishing, with most commercially valuable species already fished to unsustainable levels.

The Argentine shortfin squid and Humboldt squid are two of the species commonly caught by Chinese vessels. Populations of the Argentine shortfin have been low in recent years, with average catch by Chinese vessels in the southwest Atlantic only 50 tonnes in 2019, compared to up to 2,000 tonnes previously, according to a spokesperson from the Zhoushan Distant Water Fishing Association. This scarcity forced fishing vessels to head for the Pacific earlier than usual. According to FAO data, catches of the Argentine shortfin, Humboldt and Japanese flying squid have declined for four years running, with the Argentine shortfin seeing the greatest drop.

In Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood guide produced by Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Argentine shortfin is given a red rating, meaning fishing is occurring at unsustainable levels. As a result, the species cannot be sold in supermarkets or hotels in North America that have made strict sustainability commitments, according to Wang Songlin, chair of the Qingdao Marine Conservation Society. The Humboldt squid has a yellow rating, meaning there is no significant overfishing problem, but that fisheries management could be improved.


of China’s distant-water fishing catch is squid

Countries with significant squid populations in their exclusive economic zones, such as Peru and Mexico, already use quotas and “catch ratios” – in which a limited percentage of the catchable population may be fished. “But many commercially valuable squid species migrate between national waters and the high seas, and currently there’s no fisheries organisation to manage squid resources,” explained Wang Songlin.

China is a major catcher, trader and consumer of ocean squid. Its distant-water fleet accounts for 50-70% of the high seas catch, according to Chen Xinjun, head of the China National Distant Water Fishing Association’s squid fishing technology group. Squid accounts for one third of all China’s DWF catch and for nine consecutive years China has caught more squid than any other nation.

“China is the biggest international processor and trader of squid. Conserving high seas squid stocks is crucial for the sustainability of that industry,” said Wang. He thinks doing so is in China’s own interests, and that the size and influence of the industry means it should act as a responsible fishing power.

A voluntary closed season

However, the closed seasons cover only a small part of the area squid populations are found, and do not apply during the main fishing season. Wang said: “The most important aspect of a closed season is protecting spawning.” As long as the main spawning grounds and times are covered, it will be effective, he added.

According to a paper on global squid fisheries published in 2015, the Argentine shortfin squid spawns mainly in July and August on the continental shelf and slope off northern Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. That matches closely with the location and timing of China’s proposed closed season there.

The Humboldt squid spawns year-round, but with two peaks from February to April and September to November. That second peak coincides with China’s closed season. But the squid fisheries paper says more research is needed on the spawning sites of the Humboldt squid. Large squid populations do exist in the high seas 200 nautical miles off Ecuador and Peru, according to a book on distant-water fisheries edited by Chen Xinjun.

japanese flying squid
A Japanese flying squid being caught in the Sea of Japan (Image: Alamy)

The announcement said the outcome of the measures will be assessed annually, with the length and extent of the closed seasons to be adjusted accordingly. Success will of course depend not just on covering the right area, but on effective oversight and enforcement.

China’s DWF fleet has committed significant breaches of rules in both proposed closed season areas. One vessel captain suspected of illegally fishing for sharks off the Galapagos has been in custody in Ecuador since 2017. And Chinese vessels have repeatedly fished within Argentina’s EEZ. According to Wang Songling, because commercially fished squid species are migratory, vessels do sometimes enter national waters in pursuit. The closed seasons may to some extent reduce the risk of such incidents.

In early May, a Chinese fishing vessel was chased by the Argentine coast guard after fishing for squid in the Argentine EEZ. But according to non-profit Global Fishing Watch, Chinese vessels are most likely to be found in the waters off southern Argentina during the squid fishing season (December to July) – neither the time nor place covered by the closed seasons. Milko Schvartzman, an Argentine fishing expert, said that the closures will not change behaviour during the actual fishing seasons.

He thinks the inclusion of vessel-management measures such as electronic monitoring and electronic fishing logs are positive, calling them “a step in the direction to avoid conflict and overfishing and IUU fishing. But to be effective, they need to be implemented under a transparent and verifiable process.”

Will it happen?

Implementation of the closed season will depend on strong vessel management.

China has been working to strengthen management of its DWF fleet. A DWF planning document released in 2017 called for wider use of remote monitoring systems, logs which report catches in real time, and better coverage by fishery observers. All of these measures will be used to oversee the squid fishing closed seasons. Regulations for a DWF vessel-monitoring system which came into force in January have tougher requirements, with locations now to be reported hourly, rather than every four hours, and new early warnings and alerts for border breaches.

“If strictly implemented, the vessel-monitoring system alone would be enough to enforce the closed season,” said a DWF expert who wished to remain anonymous. According to the rules, all DWF vessels must have a vessel-monitoring system (VMS) installed, unless fishing in waters with particular requirements. The VMS sends encrypted signals on a frequency monitored by the government and is usually more reliable than the automatic identification system (AIS) used to avoid collisions. In China, it also monitors number of days spent fishing, which is then used for calculating fishing subsidies.

To rein in an ever-expanding fishing fleet, China has also toughened up punishments for breaches. Since early 2018, captains and company officials guilty of major rule breaches have been publicly blacklisted and temporarily banned from working, while the companies involved lose out on subsidies and are temporarily or permanently banned from DWF. These measures have been written into DWF regulations and a revision of the Fisheries Law, giving them full legal force.

But though vessel-monitoring data is such an important tool for vessel safety and fishing management, only Indonesia, Chile, Panama and Peru have made it public. This makes it hard for others to evaluate how rules are being enforced. Vessels of many nations fish illegally in the EEZs of other nations. Preventing such encroaches has always been a problem. In theory, making location data public would reduce the practice. According to Milko Schvartzman, three vessels – including Chinese – fished within Argentina’s EEZ this May. When so far from home, captains are sometimes willing to take risks.

Fishery management organisations

“Adjustments to the scope of the closed season, and improvements to the measures taken, can be made later, but the most important thing is to take the first step.” The anonymous DWF expert said you can’t lay down the strongest policy right away if it is to be accepted and implemented smoothly.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s announcement also said that it will suggest regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) look at longer-term and more effective measures, such as implementing international closed seasons in line with China’s, or establishing an international squid-management organisation.

Currently, important and valuable fishery resources on the high seas are managed by RFMOs. They ensure resources are used sustainably by monitoring populations of marine animals, bycatch and fishing capacity, and by overseeing fishing activity. Their influence over Chinese fishing vessels is increasing: to comply with the rules of the RFMOs it has signed up to, China has set up a compliance centre to train fishing industry personnel. In April, it carried out the first corporate compliance assessment. The results of that assessment will contribute to decisions on future fishing activity and subsidies.

Milko Schvartzman thinks that although Argentina does not support the idea of a dedicated squid RFMO, a body along the lines of an RFMO would be an improvement and help maintain squid populations: “Perhaps a body with some of its characteristics and with different structure, a new kind of conservation and regulation body can be possible with the agreement of the more involved states.”