- Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China
In Muscolino’s brilliant historical study, we learn that, after the 1870s, imperial China’s rapidly expanding population was largely due to the fishing industry. By the early 1900s, China’s new fisheries were beginning to outnumber the old ones. The number of fishing boats in the region increased from around 400 in 1890 to nearly 1,800 by 1930. In the Zhoushan Archipelago, off the coast of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, the owners of the new fishing fleets began to take out loans to enable them to expand their catch and fill the new demand from brokers and merchants in Zhoushan Islands’ expanding markets.
As the number of Zhoushan’s fisheries increased, the number of migrants to the regional urban centers grew. These migrants built religious temples, which also became community centers where disputes were resolved, thus helping to keep the peace in the Zhoushan archipelago. Many migrant men left their inland communities to seek temporary employment in the new fishing communities before returning home. At the same time, new types of vessels enabled the men to fish even further away from their island communities.
In the islands off Zhejiang and Jiangsu, a heated feud erupted in the summer of 1905 between fishing lodges unable to obtain regional agreements that would comply with local government regulations and agreements. In 1911, another violent feud broke out between the Fenghua fisheries and members of local Chinese elite families. As often happened, whenever these large-scale disputes occurred, officials and local elites tried to step in and impose order.
By 1904, a small number of foreign-educated Chinese who had become fishing specialists were able to find positions in local government. Using the new institutions and native-place groups, they began protesting the large profits going solely to owners in Zhoushan’s growing marine environment and the lack of tax revenue going to the local government. By expanding local taxation from 1900 to 1930, however, local banks were able to make the needed loans to the fishing industry, thus producing greater output. But local problems were still responsible for a loss of fishing profits.
When Japanese fisheries began threatening China’s new fishing enterprises after 1900, the regional entrepreneur banker Zhang Jian urged wealthy Chinese to modernize their offshore fisheries and to link up with new fishing associations then forming in Shanghai and the new cities of the Zhoushan region. China’s government officials intervened in Sino-Japanese fishing disputes, but to no avail, especially in the fishing areas off the port city of Ningbo. Although Chinese fishing enterprises urged central-government officials to “take advantage of ambiguities in international law to protect their claims to offshore fishing grounds” [End Page 498] (15), they were unable to establish fishing rights in those areas where Japanese boats (being more modern) were capable of fishing. Hence, China’s fishing boats were unable to reclaim fishing areas from those dominated by the Japanese.
The environmental consequence of these disputes was a precipitous decline in Zhoushan’s yellow croaker fisheries, as competing Chinese and Japanese boats led to smaller catches. Fishing shortages worsened in the 1930s; disputes were difficult to prevent and control. A similar problem arose off the Shengsi Islands when fishermen began increasing the number of cages used to catch cuttlefish, causing declines in the available fish. Although cage fishing had originally supplemented fishermen’s earnings, their incomes were reduced as the supply of cuttlefish declined.
A third large-scale fishing war took place between 1935 and 1945, when ocean borders were difficult to maintain between Zhejiang and Jiangsu even though local Chinese territorial regulations had gradually improved. In previous years, conserving fish stocks became costly for Chinese groups in their territorial waters, and “their inter-bureaucratic conflict grew more intense,” even though Chinese authorities were able to increase their local revenues. From 1940 to the end of the civil war, Chinese state policies were still weakly enforced because China’s marine environment...