Blue Hole: The Chinese Squid Fishermen Far From Home

By Ning Hui

This (link) is a translated version of 《蓝色“法外之地”,回不去的讨海人》by Chinarrative:

On a fishing vessel floating in the southwestern Atlantic, 23-year-old Wang is the only Chinese crew member not from Shidao, a town on the eastern tip of Shandong province, jutting into the Yellow Sea.

He’s from inland Sichuan and sometimes has trouble understanding the heavy coastal accent spoken around him. And he has no idea what the eight or nine Indonesian workers on the ship who speak a bit of English ​​are saying.

Wang has been on the boat for two months. In this time, they’ve sailed all the way from Shandong. His contract says he has to be here for the next two years even though he’s never been to sea. Will he be allowed home for visits? He cannot say.

Wang has quickly realized that at sea, time is relative. He’s used to wandering having left home at 15 for work, but here it’s different. He says:

I’ve been away from home for two years at a time and never missed home. At sea, I started to miss home in less than two months.

A signal-less phone is held tightly in his hand. Staring at it, he wants to take it apart and poke around a bit. But there’s music on the phone so he dares not.

At the end of 2019, on a Greenpeace research ship, I set off from Puerto Madryn in Argentina and arrived days later at this corner of the southern Atlantic Ocean. I reached the ladder dangled down to me and climbed aboard Wang’s fishing boat. More than 500 kilometers away from the coastline of the South American continent, we are no longer in the exclusive economic zone of Argentina but have reached lawless international waters.

The sun is shining and the waves are calm. The blue of the sea is several layers deeper than the blue of the sky. It’s rare for people to board a boat here on a visit and the crew is brusque with me.

Wang is small, with something of a mustache above his thin lips. He’s fidgety. The others are much older and have been doing this for 20 or 30 years.

Shidao on the Shandong peninsula has fishing in its blood, but few of the younger generation are prepared to put their lives on hold for the sea, so cheaper crew members are hired from Indonesia. These crew members are all under 20 and grouped together standing at a distance.

The weathered fishing trawler is bedecked with fishing nets and rusty metal, with seabed silt filling every gap in the wooden boards and in one free spot, someone’s hanging clothes to dry. Two dogs, Tianniu and Niuniu, lounge about. They were hauled on board as newborn puppies.

Age 23, Wang is the youngest seaman on board. He went to sea for the first time and signed a contract for two years. Courtesy: Cristóbal Olivares/Greenpeace

Back to the Sky, Facing the Sea

China came late to distant water fishing, but has made a vigorous effort to catch up. In 1985, the China National Fisheries Corporation sent 13 fishing boats carrying 223 members of the crew from Mawei Port in Fujian province to West Africa. China’s offshore fishing fleet now comprises over 2,701 ocean-going ships and is the world’s largest making up 40% of the global fleet.

Data from Global Fishing Watch shows regular fishing in over half the high seas. Some 77% of vessels active far from shore are from China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Spain and South Korea. Beyond Argentina’s exclusive economic zone, for example, the boats are mainly from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Spain.

The high oceans may be large, but there are only a few areas that are good for fishing, including this remote part of the Atlantic. Greenpeace calls it a “blue hole” due to its rich ecological resources. But it is also something of a black hole, as the boats keep coming as regulations don’t stick.

Benefiting from the long Patagonian continental shelf, this area just beyond Argentina is shallower than most high seas, the seabed is warmer, and the water flow brings nutrients and enables a rich marine life to prosper. Squid flourishes here.

In the 1970s, squid fishing in the western Atlantic plummeted from overfishing, and trawlers moved into this area further south. Since the 1980s, squid fishing has become one of the most important ocean industries.

The “blue hole” stretches some 60,000 square kilometers. Squid fishermen here seek the same species as those closer to Argentina. The difference is that this is a smaller zone, and in Argentinian waters, only 67 vessels were active in 2019.

In other words, the competition here is fierce. The Chinese fishing boats operate illegally and when they enter the Argentinian Exclusive Economic Zone to fish, they may meet the Argentinian navy which has taken up a role in controlling for trespassers.

But on the day I visited, the squid season had not yet begun so it wasn’t crowded yet. The season is from January to July every year and attracts over 400 squid boats at the peak, more than half of which are from China.

Offshore squid fishing has grown rapidly “in” China. Since 2009, China’s squid fishing output has ranked first in the world for nine consecutive years. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, China’s highest production of offshore squid was in 2018, amounting to 574,297 tons.

Squid love the light, and they are almost scooped up as they swim zombie-like towards it. With high-powered light bulbs hung down both sides of the ship, a fleet of a hundred squid boats in one small patch of the sea will turn the water a pale shade of blue at night.

Captain Lian who holds a Buddhist bead bracelet has been doing this job for 30 years. Courtesy: Cristóbal Olivares/Greenpeace

Captain Lian is from Shandong like most of his crew. He started fishing in this area of ​​the southwest Atlantic in 2013. This time he came less than a week ago and he still hasn’t lowered his nets. If there’s no wind tomorrow, he will begin. The nets bring in everything, trawling up from the seabed. “There are so many types of sea creatures living here,” he says.

The captain is friendly and offers us uninvited guests apples. They don’t have many fresh produce left and may have to wait until they next see a port for more. Sometimes the ship that picks up their catch will bring supplies, but they don’t know whether they will bring fruit.

I knew before I came here that the crews on Chinese ocean-faring fishing vessels may take a contract for a year or two. Life on board ship is tough and a shift may last three to six months. But as the captain sighs:

It’s hard to imagine, but some have to stay for three years at a stretch.

The captain fiddles with his Buddhist bead bracelet. He’s been doing this job for 30 years and has a grandson at home who he mentions several times. If he’s lucky, he will sail off into retirement soon.

A Seabed Ripped Bare

Liu Guocheng, from Hebei, has lived in Uruguay for 20 plus years. He runs a shipping agency and has a fleet of tuna fishing vessels. He works with “blue hole” fishermen all year round and knows these vessels well.

In an interview in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, Liu Guocheng says they are not catching as much as they used to out there. The last “big harvest” was in 2015.

Squid live throughout the year, but to ensure they grow to maturity, coastal countries plan when to fish them. Argentina begins at the end of January and the Falkland Islands require a mid-February start.

But Liu says those active on the high seas “may start as early as the end of November when the squid is still growing. When they are caught, they are so small they have to be thrown away.”

Trawling for squid every day, the sea bed looks like “like an airport runway,” said Liu.

Where are all the fish now? Last year’s season saw 100 vessels go out, but next to nothing was caught.

2019 was called the year of “no production.” According to Zhoushan Daily’s interview with the Zhoushan Ocean Fisheries Association, from 2007 to 2011, the Chinese squid fishing boats in the Southwest Atlantic had a production capacity of more than 2,000 tons. In recent years, the production volume was only 200 to 400 tons.

In 2019, it was only 50 tons.

It is hard to precisely determine why no squid was to be had last year. Water temperature or food supply of the juvenile squid may have had an impact; overfishing in previous years resulted in insufficient squid, which may have caused a decline in production. But the fishing vessels haven’t gone home.

China is a big fishing country and ocean fishing is only getting bigger. The National Bureau of Statistics showed that in 2015, of 67 million tons of fishing output, only around 1.34 million tons or 2% was from ocean fishing. This proportion increased to 6.6% in 2019.

China’s subsidies to the ocean fishing industry are extremely generous, with fuel at the heart of the operations. In 2006, the central government provided 281 million yuan (around $41 million) in diesel subsidies to offshore fishing companies. In 2014, this subsidy had increased to 4.2 billion yuan.

These subsidies are directly related to strong growth in the number of fishing vessels nationwide. From 2012 to 2019, they increased from 1,830 to 2,701. Shandong and Fujian provinces have the strongest local support and consequently the most vessels, although there is not an equivalent increase in output.

Seafarers prepare for a fishing expedition in Qingdao, China, May 14, 2012. Courtesy: Hong Wu/Getty Images

According to a 2014 public document, you can get a cash subsidy of up to 6 million yuan for buying an ocean-going fishing boat from Fujian and can also get millions from municipal authorities. In Qingdao, newly built, purchased, or converted local fishing vessels can receive subsidies ranging from 1.5 to 5 million yuan.

The existence of these subsidies, in the eyes of Uruguayan shipping agent Liu Guocheng, is the reason why there are so many Chinese boats in the “blue hole.” With these subsidies, the fishing boats floating here seem like gamblers who hardly need to worry about losing money.

The fishing situation and the market change every year. According to Liu Guocheng:

If there is a big harvest this year, and the fleet has its own freezer, they may freeze some fish, and bet on making a profit next year. Small companies do not have the capital to build cold storage and have expenses to pay, so regardless of market conditions, aim to sell quickly.

But ocean fishing also has another role. In some Chinese policy documents, the ocean-going fleet is sometimes referred to as the country’s “second navy.” The fishing boats drifting on the open sea are linked to other interests and influences on the ocean, and part of the discourse about building up China as a “marine power,” for which they also get state subsidies.

In early June 2020, the Chinese Fisheries Administration issued a notice that it planned to implement a voluntary “ban on squid fishing” in the two waters of the southwestern Atlantic and eastern Pacific in 2020. This is the first time China has proposed such a ban. But fishing vessels that smell a low-yield crisis may seek to move faster.

According to the long-term tracking of fishing boats by a website, there will be a significant increase in the number of fishing boats in the Indian Ocean in 2020—a large number of them from Shandong. The background is the sharp decline in Argentinian squid production in 2019.

Courtesy: Cristóbal Olivares/Greenpeace

Life, Land and the Ocean

In Uruguay, December is the midsummer. In the evening, the strong sunlight finally becomes slanted and darker. There are many squid fishing boats and trawlers stopping at the port of Montevideo. There seems to be endless maintenance on board, all preparing for the squid season that will begin soon.

Looking at the flags, there are Korean and Spanish ones. There is also a Chinese trawler, which at first glance looks exactly like Captain Lian’s boat. Those working on the deck also have Southeast Asian faces. Seeing me, they probably see me as Chinese and lead me to the captain’s room.

This captain’s surname is Dong and he’s also from Shandong. He has just turned 30 and has a round skull and cheerful expression. He said that he started working as a fisherman 10 years ago and has worked his way up from the bottom to captain. This is his first trip since becoming a captain. He will set off in a few days and head out to the open seas.

It’s dinner time. Food is brought up from the galley. The chief engineer, chief mate and captain are the chefs on board. The food is good, with fish and meat, marinated chicken feet, steamed buns—Shandong cuisine.

The chief engineer invites me to stay and brings out some cans of Tsingtao beer, all scratched up. Its production date is from a year ago—the same once-a-year supplies.

When the fishing boat returns to port, the crew will also return home to visit relatives. Captain Dong finds the transition hard to justify:

We stay at home for one month every year and at sea for 10 months. Working at home every day, staying with your wife and children every day. How does it feel? It’s normal. And if you come here to work again and you don’t see your wife and children, you’d think this is a terrible thing.

For the crew of this ship, the catch is only a number. Regardless of a “big harvest” or a “small harvest,” the most important thing is to keep the net at sea.

There are no expenses at sea and wages can be saved. This is the most important advantage of choosing to go to the sea.

Captain Dong is still young and his child is still small, so saving money is his top priority. He smiled at me and said:

You, you should not write a report about squid, you should write about the house prices being too high and a wife being too expensive to keep. If you do, all the crew members will send you a letter of praise.

Translator: Heather Mowbray
Contributing Chinarrative editor: Isabel Wang

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