Other experts are skeptical. “The new estimates seem far, far too high,” says Richard Grainger, chief of the fisheries statistics and information service at the FAO. He notes that a previous assessment estimated the total unreported catch in West Africa (by all nations) at 300,000–560,000 tons a year. That study tried to identify what was missing from official catch figures with a review of English-language scientific studies.
If the new numbers stand up, renewals of fishing contracts with West African nations could be affected. In the 2000s, under public pressure, EU fleets stopped fishing in coastal waters off much of West Africa, except Mauritania and Morocco. They were replaced by Chinese vessels, mostly large bottom-trawlers whose violations of near-shore no-fishing zones have led to protests.
Gascuel, who helps to determine how many fish can be caught while avoiding population collapse, says that numbers of octopus and shrimp available to be taken in EU contracts with Mauritania, primarily by Spanish vessels, were already small. But once the actual Chinese catch is factored in, he says, “we’d have to eliminate the Spanish catch”.
Ironically, it was Pauly’s team that 12 years ago found that China had been over-reporting its domestic catch by at least 6 million tons. Pauly says that mid-level bureaucrats in the country often exaggerate their achievements.
But he says that China’s under-reporting of the distant-water catch is the more important problem. “It shows the extent of the looting of Africa, where so many people depend on seafood for basic protein.”