Lenfest Ocean Program

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China has a momentous opportunity to restore its wild fisheries and protect marine ecosystems, according to a new study. For the first time, the central government has explicitly listed social equity and environmental protection as priorities on par with economic development. Achieving that vision in the ocean, however, will require serious institutional adjustments.

The study recommends six such adjustments, based on three years of discussion among a team of experts from within and outside China. This fact sheet summarizes their findings and recommendations, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A collaborative look at history

The study emerged from an expert group of Chinese and Western scientists supported by the U.S.-based Lenfest Ocean Program. Starting in Beijing in 2014, and then in 2015 in Shanghai, the group met to discuss realistic reforms that could be accomplished within the country’s cultural norms for governing fisheries resources.

Their new study examines the cultural context, notably the preference for taming nature and for minimal waste, which helps to explain China’s widespread practice of nonselective fishing. It also reviews the country’s history of fisheries governance. Key milestones include the 1978 Economic Reform, which launched an effort to expand fisheries, and the No. 5 Central Document in 1985, which spurred improvements in fishing and generated a decade of 12-percent annual growth in catches.

This remarkable growth contributed to the Chinese economy, but also put tremendous pressure on marine ecosystems. The government has made numerous efforts toward sustainability, but many have been poorly enforced and monitored, or undercut by subsidies. However, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan may be a turning point.

A paradigm shift?

The Plan, launched in March 2016, emerges from the current leadership’s agenda of “ecocivilization,” which aims to “build a resource-saving and environment-friendly society.” Leaders have followed through with several actions, such as setting the goal of reducing catch by one-third by 2020, that suggest a genuinely stronger commitment.

The new study argues that China will also need institutional change to implement this agenda. Accordingly, the authors propose six reforms, described in table 1.

Seize the hour

The authors conclude that the central government can transform marine fisheries management, to the great benefit of its citizens, but that the window of opportunity is closing as wild fish stocks become further depleted. The paper ends with a classic Chinese saying: “Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour.”

Marine Fisheries Reform in China


Cao, L., Y. Chen, S. Dong, A. Hanson, B. Huang, D. Leadbitter, D. C. Little, E. K. Pikitch, Y. Qiu, Y. S. de Mitcheson, U. R. Sumaila, M. Williams, G. Xue, Y. Ye, W. Zhang, Y. Zhou, P. Zhuang, and R. L. Naylor. (2017). Opportunity for marine fisheries reform in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (3), 435-442.

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