What’s next for EU-China ocean cooperation?

A round-up of views from Chinese and international experts

The European Union and China agreed on July 17 at their annual summit to work together to tackle the ocean crisis. We asked a panel of Chinese and international experts to assess the value of the commitments in resolving illegal and unsustainable fishing, pollution and climate change.

Wang Yamin, associate professor at Marine College of Shandong University, Weihai

This partnership is a major step forward and sets out general lines for future collaboration in the following areas:

  • The conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the high seas.
  • The fight against marine pollution, including marine plastic litter and microplastics.
  • The mitigation of and adaption to climate change impacts on the ocean, including the Arctic Ocean.
  • The conservation of Antarctic marine living resources.
  • Fisheries governance in regional and global fora, and the prevention of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Chen Jiliang, researcher at Greenovation Hub, a non-governmental organisation based in Beijing

When it comes to marine cooperation, China has fewer conflicts over sensitive issues with the EU than it does with the US, and therefore fewer misgivings about cooperating with the EU.

The EU is an advocate for marine reserves and has proposed new ones on the high seas and in Antarctic waters. However, China has concerns over large marine reserves. At this point, a mechanism for high-level policy dialogue and cooperative efforts on science, technology and logistics would, if established, promote each other.

Meanwhile, both China and the EU have huge fishing fleets working off Africa, and they are key partners in the sustainable development of the continent. China and the EU could cooperate on supporting some less capable African nations, for example by building a sustainable fisheries management system in Senegal, ensuring all three parties benefit.

The debate around ‘conservation versus sustainable use’ is hindering progress toward stronger ocean governance.

Li Shuo, senior climate policy and ocean expert at Greenpeace East Asia

‪The EU-China ocean partnership should not be a marriage of convenience but one that can ‪channel multilateralism into action. With a vast number of issues to address, protecting our ocean requires urgent cooperation between Beijing and its international counterparts.

Earlier this year, the Chinese fishery authority publicly punished a number of companies for illegal fishing. Some of their actions were reported by the EU. The accountability of the Chinese authorities in dealing with these cases should serve as the basis for further trust-building.

Similar to the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ debate on climate change, the debate around ‘conservation versus sustainable use’ is hindering progress toward stronger ocean governance. In regulating some of the extraterritorial areas such as the high seas and polar regions, China and the EU need to find the right balance between protection and utilisation.

In the area of marine plastics, the EU and China are front and centre of the problem. Early momentum in reducing the use of plastic products should be seized, taking into account the fragmented nature of China’s regulatory regime.

Zhu Zhengguang is UNDP environment officer in the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Phase II Project

This partnership not only sets out general lines but also focuses on specific areas such as managing marine litter, including plastics. Cooperation is focused on fisheries and living marine resources. In the Antarctic, krill and other endangered species might be the priority.

We also need to consider areas that were unmentioned in the agreement, such as transboundary marine spatial planning and information sharing to promote sustainable economic growth, and cooperating on marine protected areas through capacity building and networking.

Ryan Penney, maritime policy analyst at China Policy, a research and strategic advisory group, Beijing

Cooperation on Port State Measures remains one of the most critical issues, as any international agreement to prevent IUU fishing cannot work if illegal catch is easily landed and sold directly into one of the world’s largest markets. China still has some way to go in establishing effective port regulations for both its own and international vessels.

For example, its latest changes to Port State Measures proposals at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) last December, asking only for the measures to apply at ‘self-designated’ ports. This specific amendment does not come as a surprise and reflects China’s current lack of adequate nationwide port infrastructure to support such regulation.

As obstructionist as their actions have been on this matter, it has made steps to improve its domestic situation. This year China has issued an interconnected ‘National Coastal Fishing Port Construction Plan 2018-25’, upcoming ‘Regulations on Fishing Port management and Supervision’ and port supervision and safety training courses in order to build a better base for port controls. As expected these ambitious plans are far from complete, and provide key areas for cooperation between EU-China to increase the efficacy and sustainability of China’s port regulation systems.

Andrea Kavanagh, director, Protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean programme at the Pew Charitable Trusts, Washington DC

Recent scientific analysis finds the Southern Ocean is experiencing species declines at a similar rate to the rest of the planet.

This signals the need for the EU, China and the other countries that belong to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) throughout the Southern Ocean.

Two MPA proposals are currently being considered for designation in 2018 – one protecting the vast, ecologically important East Antarctic coastal region, which would safeguard Adélie penguin colonies and allow for more research into the effects of climate change in the area; the other in the Weddell Sea, which is home to one-third of all emperor penguin hatchlings and perhaps most importantly, it is the birthplace of nutrient-rich currents that flow around the world.

Additionally, the need for future marine protections in the Antarctic Peninsula is critical because for decades, commercial fishing fleets have focused almost exclusively on krill, directly threatening the food supply and habitat where breeding penguins nest and forage. Krill are the centre of the entire Southern Ocean food web. A network of MPAs would ensure that krill continue to be available for penguins and other species throughout the Southern Ocean.

A network of MPAs would ensure that these intact and biodiverse regions are preserved for science and conservation purposes. And the collective area covered by a network of MPAs would also significantly contribute to the goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans. The clock is ticking on putting in place protections that can help ensure a vibrant marine ecosystem.

The EU-China partnership should champion transparency as the most cost-effective and efficient means to target rogue IUU fishing

Steve Trent, executive director of the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation, which promotes the resolution of human rights abuses and related environmental issues

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is pushing the world’s fisheries to the brink of collapse, losing the world up to US$23.5 billion a year. The EU and China are both central to the fight to stop it. They are two of the world’s largest seafood markets and possess two of the most significant distant water fleets.

Their markets buy high-risk species, like shrimp from South-east Asia, and their vessels operate in areas vulnerable to IUU fishing such as West Africa, where the practice threatens the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities.

IUU fishing thrives in the shadows. To fight it, the EU-China partnership should champion transparency as the most cost-effective and efficient means to target rogue IUU fishing operations, while rewarding responsible businesses.