Photos: Chinese fishermen trapped in the sea with no fish
In recent years, behind the fishing disputes in the international waters is the depletion of fish production just off China’s coast. Pollution and overfishing right offshore have been the recurring problems, which threatens the fishing grounds. In the eastern city of Qingdao, over 5,000 small fishing boats lack the ability to go far into the distant water to fish and can only struggle for a living within a five-sea-mile radius of the coastline.
At 7 a.m. in Jiaozhou Bay of Qingdao, a fisherman prepares for their daily outing. Many fishermen in Qingdao’s Jiaozhou Bay set out even earlier – at 5 a.m., when it is still dark in mid-March – to preempt fish and make more hauls.
Yang Shan bought this 60-horsepower fishing vessel in 2005. The vessel of low small horsepower is not enough for travelling a good distance and can only be used for inshore fishing. Sand lance, referred to as ‘Noodlefish’ by locals for its slender body, is their main target. The catching season in Qingdao for noodlefish is from March to May, when schools of noodlefish come to the inshore coast and burrow into the sand to breed. Back in 1999, over 500,000 tons of noodlefish were harvested in Qingdao’s inshore area. “Even a careless casting could harvest a good haul of noodlefish. Easy peasy,” as older fishermen like to describe it. However, in 2006, the annual catch dropped to 100,000 tons. The cause of the dwindling fishery is the exploitation of sand inshore, which has brought irreversible damage to the living environment that noodlefish rely on.
The youngest fisherman on Yang Shan’s boat is 45, while the oldest is 59. Yang’s boat is representative of the age pattern of the population that Qingdao’s inshore fishing industry employs.
This small horsepower fishing boat trawls for fish within a 5-nautical-mile radius off the coast, where waterways for large cargo ships coming to and fro Qingdao’s port lie. The activities of fishing vessels using these waterways represent the conflict in the area. The local fishery administration frequently patrols the area to drive away fishing boats. In response, fishermen fight a guerrilla war. In recent years, the number of fishing boats inshore has reached the saturation point, and the fisheries authorities have stopped issuing any license for inshore fishing. Quite a number of fishing boats are simply operating off the radar.
On the fishing boat, each fisherman performs his own duties. Older fishermen are often given consideration and do easier tasks. The picture shows that before casting the net, 53-year-old Liu Xianbo, who is in charge of dispatching management, signals other fishing boats to back off and avoid nets getting entangled together.
Yang Shan’s fishing boat is equipped with a fishfinder bought in Japan. The device can locate schools of fish and display them on the monitor, allowing Yang Shan to determine the fishing site from the information it provides. Almost all fishing vessels from Rizhao, a coastal city 170 km (110 miles) southwest of Qingdao, use this device, but it is rarely seen on fishing vessels in Qingdao. Urbanization of Qingdao’s fishing population means that more and more fishermen have abandoned their fishing career, permanently left the sea and settled down in the city. Qingdao’s booming industrialization and economy can afford more viable alternatives.
46-year-old Wang Tingying is the youngest of all on board. Reeling in the net is a tiring job, and naturally it goes to him, who is in the prime of life. The picture shows Wang Tingying reels in the fish net.
The entire crew make a concerted effort 钢缆将渔网收到船边，这时候需要船上全部的人来用力拉网。
During the break, fishermen love to play “Fighting the landlord,” a very popular poker game in China, to kill time.
After a few hauls, the fish net has broken. Wang Tingying and Wang Tingzun are patching the net.
With the reduction of inshore fisheries resources in recent years, some fishermen in pursuit of short-term benefits have started to use “catch-as-catch-can” nets to haul even juvenile fish. Some fishermen even sneak into the sea and catch fish during the closed season. Yang Shan and the fishermen under him, however, “don’t have the nerve to act recklessly” under the nose of the local fishery administration. They have been using the same fish net for years.
Cigarettes, liquor and tea are the three must-haves that fishermen carry with them wherever they go. 53-year-old Liu Xianbo smokes two packs of cigarettes each day. Years of fishing and laboring on the sea have made him highly reliant on cigarettes. Except for the closed season, which lasts three months every year, the fishermen would drift all day on the sea for the rest of the year. Liu Xianbo goes home to take a look at his wife and kids once every two weeks. Other than that, he does nothing but fishing.
There are few fish in this haul.
“The hardship of fishing is beyond the imagination of young people,” one fisherman says. Whenever they find large schools of fish, they skip meals and work overtime. With the diesel fuel price continuously on the rise, fishermen try to make as many as catches as possible each day. But frustration remains due to the drastic decrease in the number of fish.
Their lunch comes from the noodlefish they catch, and are cooked in the kitchen on the boat. A few years ago in Qingdao, few locals consumed noodlefish, as it has little nutritional value. Fishermen would discard noodlefish back into the sea. The noodlefish retained by the fishermen would be sun-dried and processed, and either used as food for other commercially farmed fish, or exported to be further processed into fish products.
Wang Tingzun and Wang Tingying are having their lunch on board.
However, in recent years, gradual disappearance of fish in offshore waters has forced people in Qingdao to settle with noodlefish headed for their dining tables. From each March to May, only noodlefish are freshly caught. All other fish in the farmers’ market are frozen.
Wang Tingfu takes a rest on the deck.
59-year-old Wang Tingfu is the oldest fishermen on the boat. He entered the profession at the age of 16, and has been drifting on the sea for more than four decades. His two daughters work back in their hometown, but neither entered the fishing industry. Wang Tingfu is now mostly concerned about his youngest daughter, who is 24 and single. During his years of fishing in Qingdao, Wang has been on the lookout for a Qingdao local as an ideal date for his daughter.
Mr. Zhang, who purchases fish in bulk from fishermen, sits on the boat right off the coast. On this day, the law enforcement from the local fishery administration chased away fishing vessels in the offshore waters. Mr. Zhang did not get any noodlefish and came back empty-handed.
On really lucky days, Yang Shan’s boat can catch as much as 800 kilos of noodlefish within one day. This year, the fishing season has come earlier than usual. The average size of this year’s noodlefish is also bigger, which has attracted fishermen to come and fight desperately for fish resources. Overfishing of noodlefish can only result in short-term economic benefits. In the long run, it can lead to the upset of the food chain and adversely affect the population of mackerel, the predator of noodlefish. Noodlefish is sold on the market at 3 yuan per kilo (US$0.22 per pound), whereas mackerel is sold at 15 to 20 yuan per kilo (US$1.08 to 1.44 per pound). However, to fishermen, a fish at hand is worth two in the sea. Maximizing their yields and profits in noodlefish is more urgent than restoring fish stocks.
A 60-horsepower fishing vessel burns 800 yuan of diesel fuel every day (US$127). The price of diesel fuel determines fishermen’s net income. On March 20, 2012, diesel price rose from 7.32 yuan (US$4.40 per gallon) to 7.84 yuan per liter (US$4.72), which spells an increase of 50 to 100 yuan in fuel costs per day. Since 2006, diesel fuel price has shot up from 5,200 yuan per ton to 9,000 yuan per ton. In the mean time, the local fishery administration has been doling out fuel subsidies to alleviate their financial stress.
Having to drift on the sea throughout the year, fishermen spend their nights on the fishing vessel too. The fishermen on Yang Shan’s boat make 2,500 to 3,000 yuan a month (US$397 to 476). But they rarely disembark after sailing into the porter and would rather stay on board, as landing naturally results in more spending. The picture shows Wang Tingbin text-messages his family after dinner.
Deep into the night, Wang Tingying carries out routine maintenance and repair of the fishing boat. Yang Shan’s boat is more than 10 years old. Its diesel engine is so faulty that maintenance is a daily ritual. The fishermen population has been aging, but very few young people enter the profession to replenish it. Yang Shan and his fishermen know that some Chinese fishermen operate illegally in the distant waters and, not long ago, a South Korean coast guard was stabbed by a fisherman to death. “They really shouldn’t have gone if it constitutes a violation of any relevant law,” Yang Shan said, but he added that ten years ago, fishermen of South Korea and China were still able to coexist peacefully while fishing in the same area.
In Qingdao, as the city keeps expanding and investing in large-scale marine projects, fishermen, who depend on the sea for a living, are displaced in the face of ever-shrinking fishing areas, and have to seek alternative careers. The picture shows an advertisement put on by a fisherman at a port in Qingdao for selling his fishing boat.
Quite a number of fishing villages were demolished and built into property projects during the urban development and construction process. Villagers received compensation for the loss of their homes and moved to elsewhere. The picture shows that in a village about to be demolished in Qingdao, villagers have already moved to the high-rise buildings on the opposite bank and completed their first step of urbanization.
Derelict fishing boats have taken up thousands of square meters of land here at Qinghai’s Xiaomaidao Port, which is nicknamed “burial ground for the fishing fleet.” The dearth of fish in offshore waters has put these small fishing boats out of business. In the past five years, the fishing fleet in Qingdao’s coastal waters has been drastically brought down by several thousand to only 5,000 vessels. While many fishermen gave up their traditional livelihood options, the rest have stayed nevertheless and are still trawling for crumbs left in the depleted fishing ground.