Evaluating the progress of China’s TAC system – case studies on the pilots of Zhejiang and Fujian province

2021-08-12 Author: Wei Li

During the 13th five-year Plan period, under the background of ecological civilization reforms, the concept of "ecological priority and green development" of fishery resources in China was put forward for the first time, setting higher requirements for the conservation and sustainable utilization of marine fishery resources. As China's marine fishery management measures that have long relied on input control systems such as the dual control of fishing vessels and horsepower, and technical measures such as fishing closures, minimum mesh size and other technical measures have not been able to reverse the trend of resource decline, output control has become a focus of the reform of marine fishery resources management system in the new era. According to the current Fisheries Law of China, the output control of the country takes the total allowable catch (TAC) system as the core element.   

Fisheries resource management methods and their correlations @ Japan Fisheries Agency

As a refined, scientific and modern fishery management system, the TAC system requires the establishment of a systematic management system around fish stocks. This system contains a number of key elements in order to maintain a long-term maximum sustainable catch: the catch limit should be based on a scientific stock assessment, taking into account the ecological characteristics of specific fish species; the catch limit should be set based on peer reviewed science. After setting the catch limit, a combination of input and technical measures must be decided to help implement the management strategy, according to the management objectives and characteristics of the fishery. In addition, the system requires a reliable catch monitoring system to monitor quota implementation, collect key information for stock assessment and enforce the catch limit so that the total amount of fish caught stays within the set limit.  Authorities also need to control fishing capacity in order to achieve a balance between fishing capacity and allowable catch as much as possible, so as to avoid the low income of fishermen due to excess fishing capacity. All these put forward higher requirements for institutional capacity and management costs. 

In accordance with the requirements of the Circular on further strengthening the Control of domestic fishing vessels and implementing the Total Management of Marine Fisheries Resources (MOA (2017) No. 2) issued by the former Ministry of Agriculture in 2017, coastal provinces/municipalities began to pilot TAC systems on specific species from 2017. By the end of 2020, 15 pilot projects have been carried out across the country, accumulating a great deal of valuable experience. In this context, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Qingdao Marine Conservation, together with Zhejiang Marine Fisheries Research Institute and Fujian Fisheries Research Institute, studied the results of three pilot projects in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, and completed the report entitled Progress of China’s TAC System: Evaluation Report for Zhejiang and Fujian Pilots (hereinafter "the report"). The report concludes that the two provinces have made breakthroughs with respect to a number of TAC elements which contribute to promoting a refined, science-based and modern approach to fishery management in China. 

TAC report @NRDC 

Because the pilot projects are in the preliminary exploration stage, they will not have a tangible impact on the resource abundance or economic performance of fishermen in the short term. Therefore, this study evaluates the performance of these pilots against their objectives, focusing on the catch reporting and monitoring system, the enforcement of laws and regulations. Additional considerations are stakeholder participation and quota setting. 

The lack of effective catch monitoring system is one of the major obstacles for the implementation of a TAC system in China. The traditional paper logbook and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS)  are not enough to support the TAC system. Based on this impediment, all three pilots examined in this study focused on exploring catch monitoring tools and the construction of a catch monitoring system. Among them, the electronic logbooks and the observer system are carried out at the domestic fishery level for the first time. 

In order to achieve more real-time monitoring, pilot projects in Zhejiang and Fujian have introduced electronic logbooks, where fishermen send back data at sea via satellite or broadband networks. The analysis of the pilot project in Zhejiang Province shows that compared with the traditional paper logbook, the elogbook has obvious advantages in many aspects, including clear data display and timely transmission, thus helping to avoid unreasonable and incomplete reports. In addition, when the data self-reported by fishermen are verified with other sources, the elogbooks can automatically carry out large-scale and rapid comparison, identify high-risk vessels intelligently and efficiently, thus saving a lot of labor costs. However, due to the lack of equipment stability (in terms of consistent internet access at sea), fishermen’s lack of familiarity with smart devices and the current lack of a legal requirement for electronic logbooks (as opposed to paper logbooks), fishermen's acceptance of electronic logbooks is generally lower than that of paper logbooks.

Raising fishermen’s awareness on filling fishing logbooks in Taizhou city of Zhejiang province @NRDC

An observer system is another important element of a modern fishery management system that was introduced in the Zhejiang Province pilots. The system was first introduced in the pilot project of gazami crab and made rapid progress in the pilot project of anchovy which has had an observer system for the whole fishing season for three consecutive years. The advantage of having observers on board vessels is that they can objectively and simultaneously collect production data, biological scientific data and they can monitor the implementation of fisheries regulations. In the early days of the establishment of a TAC system in China, the report found observers also played a unique role, such as helping to solve the difficulties encountered by fishermen in filling out logbooks, and observing the whole process of production (including at-sea operation, transshipment, landing and processing), thus helping managers understand the characteristics of the fishery, and providing important information for later improvement in the implementation of the pilot. In the juvenile anchovy pilot project, law enforcement observers boarded the vessel for real-time inspection throughout the fishing season. 

The design of the monitoring system needs to take into account the characteristics of the fisheries, creating positive incentives to promote compliance with management regulations. The Zhejiang anchovy fishery is a case of providing positive incentives for all stakeholders. As a special-permitted fishery, the competent authorities and the cooperative together set higher access conditions at the beginning of the establishment of the pilot fishery. At the same time, the competent authorities strictly enforce the management rules. Anyone violating the pilot rules will be denied access the next year. If the overall performance is poor, the project may be cancelled, which gives the cooperative a strong motivation of compliance.  In addition, the Zhejiang anchovy fishery is very organized. The management team integrate the pilot rules in the management of the   cooperatives, which is supported by fishermen, and this self-management can coordinate with supervision and law enforcement forces. This pilot project is much better than other pilot projects in terms of compliance with catch reporting and other rules. The pilot practice provides a reference for other special permitted fishery management.

Air dried product of juvenile anchovy from Zhejiang juvenile anchovy pilot @NRDC 

The report found that, in addition to the monitoring system, the pilot had also made progress in setting science-based catch limits. At the beginning of the three pilot projects, due to the lack of resource survey data, the TAC was mainly based on the catch in the past few years. After the pilot project, Zhejiang and Fujian have made great progress in information accumulation, including data obtained from resource survey and independent sampling using research vessels, biological data of pilot species and by-catch collected by observers with fishing vessels at sea, and other data such as environmental factors. For example, the length-frequency data obtained from the biological sampling of red swimming crabs at the port have supported estimation of a length-based Bayesian stock assessment model and established a scientific basis for TACs and harvest control rules in future fishing seasons. 

Scientists conducting biological sampling of red swimming crabs at port @Fujian Fisheries Research Institute        

Zhejiang and Fujian provinces have also learned experience from developed countries in fishery management and enhancing their understanding of the TAC system. Scientists from the two provinces participated in field visits to other countries and organized a number of international workshops on topics as international experience in TAC system, catch monitoring, observer system, fishermen's cooperatives, rights-based management, etc., which set up a platform for domestic exchanges and provided reference for TAC pilot projects in other provinces and cities. Finally, the pilots focused on and practiced the involvement of various stakeholders, including fishermen, fisheries cooperatives and fishery management agencies, and carried out the division of responsibilities in the form of a Work Plan. This approach can be taken as a prototype for the development of Fisheries Management Plans.

Workshop held in 2017 by NRDC and EDF exchanging international TAC experience @EDF   

The report also found that the pilots also reflected some challenges. 

First, fishing logbooks are the most important way to obtain production data, but the inspection of fishing logbooks has not received the same attention as the inspection of permits, fishing gear and safety facilities. Law enforcement found that the fishing logbooks were often not complete, timely and/or accurate, but the current law lacks clear penalty standards and rules for such acts. In addition, the primary challenge to the domestic observer system is the lack of qualified personnel, funding and the unclear legal protections for observers.  

Second, in addition to monitoring tools, the monitoring system also needs a verification system to ensure the reliability of the data, usually by comparing two independent sources of data. The report found that the transshipment vessels is a major loophole in monitoring. At present, the supervision of transshipment vessels is relatively weak, and the return rate and accuracy of transshipment reports is low, which brings great challenges to the verification of fishermen's reported information. In addition, the monitoring of catches at the port is an essential part of the verification of data. Although several pilot projects have required designated port landing, the monitoring at port has yet to be carried out.

Fishermen usually weigh their catch at port. @NRDC   

Finally, establishment of the TAC system involves a series of fundamental changes in concepts and regulatory framework, which cannot be achieved overnight, and the implementation process requires continuous and close communication and coordination between provincial and county-level fishery departments. In particular, county-and city-level institutions should have obtained more positive signals, clear requirements and adequate guidance from the provincial level. There should also be national policies that provide financial, administrative, scientific research, and even public communication and education resources to support the change. 

It is expected that it will take time to create the conditions for full implementation of the TAC system. Although the overall national strategy of TAC during the 14th five-year Plan period has not yet been announced, we have seen many positive signals. For example, starting from this year, all special permitted fisheries during the summer fishing moratorium throughout the country have been included in the TAC management. The comprehensive reform of fishing ports is being accelerated and the pilot project of designated port landing and catch traceability has been carried out throughout the country. The adjustment of the fishery subsidy policy of the 14th five-year Plan to guide fishermen to conserve resources and reduce the vessel numbers has created positive conditions for the implementation of the TAC system. 

In addition to suggestions for improvement for each pilot, taking into account  common problems and challenges reflected in the pilot, the report also puts forward the following overall recommendations for the implementation of other national pilots and the promotion of related policies:

Recommendation 1: Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the TAC pilots, establish step-by-step goals and a roadmap for the implementation of TAC management. 

Summarized the experience and lessons learned from the pilots; continue to test and refine technical and policy tools that support TAC management; expand pilot waters and add new pilots on longer lifespan, commercially important finfish species; foster international and domestic exchanges; and formulate step-by-step goals and an action roadmap for the implementation of TAC management in China.

Recommendation 2: Set up TACs on a scientific basis

Establish a national fishery stock assessment system and train professionals to conduct regular fishery resource surveys and stock assessments; TAC should be set up scientifically, based on the estimated abundance and productivity of the relevant stocks, for purposes of ensuring fisheries’ sustainability; develop science-based harvest strategies and control rules adapt TACs and other management measures as fishery conditions change.

Recommendation 3: Increase investment in improving catch monitoring and accounting. 

Strictly enforce fishing logbook system; promote continued development and application of the electronic reporting and monitoring tools, to ensure the timely transmission of key information to national centralized databases for recording, reporting, analyzing, and sharing catch, landing, sales, and transshipment data; accelerated the establishment of designated ports for landing and port monitoring throughout the country.

Recommendation 4: Establish tailored fishery management plans. 

Explore the development of a coordinated and agreed-upon fishery management plan for a few economically important fisheries species or stocks promote rebuilding and protection of fish stocks and habitats and address the needs of different stakeholders. 

Recommendation 5: Strengthen regulations and enforcement. 

Establish a legal framework for comprehensively implementing a TAC system as part of an amended Fisheries Law; strengthen logbook inspection as one of the priorities for at-sea and port inspection; lay out penalties for failing to submit logbooks or submitting inaccurate logbooks; greatly strengthen transshipment management; use big data and information technological methods increase law enforcement efficiency; strengthen cross-regional and cross-sectoral supervision and management. 

Recommendation 6: Elevate the importance of TAC management and integrate it with current input-control-management measures. 

Coordinated the development of the TAC system and integrated with the further implementation of traditional input control measures—such as fishing capacity reduction; cracking down on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; minimum catch size—to maximize the conservation impact; central and provincial governments should provide sustained institutional, financial, and technical support to improve the TAC management system.    

About the Author

  • Wei Li

    Senior Project Manager, Conservation Project, NRDC China