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  • Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China
  • Peter Yang (bio)
Micah S. Muscolino. Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China. Harvard East Asian Monograph 325. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. x, 300 pp. Hardcover $39.95, isbn 978-0-674-03598-0.

This monograph is a volume of the Harvard East Asian Monograph Series published by the Harvard University Asia Center. It is a major study of China's fishing history from the late Qing period to the 1970s. In addition to the focus on fishing wars and conflicts, fishing exploitation, and related quasi-legal, legal, and administrative solutions in the Zhoushan maritime region, this volume also explores their impact on environmental changes in the region.

It is very important to study the historical impact of (over)fishing on environmental changes in China. It can inform us of the current and future environmental impacts of the Chinese fishing industry. This task has a particular urgency because the increased consumption of seafood in the Chinese food structure has become a trend as a result of a rising Chinese middle class. Although the study does not provide immediate solutions to the emerging conflicts of the growing consumer demand and its environmental impact, its findings urge all the involved parties—including the fishing industry, local and central governments, and consumers—to reconsider their existing fishing practices and search for viable alternative solutions. The author argues that a better understanding of how people have historically generated, perceived, and responded to environmental change will help meet contemporary challenges in an informed way. [End Page 549]

An introduction highlights the environmental perspective of the research related to the impact of overfishing and pollution on sustainability of ocean habitats. Thus, it communicates the importance of this research on the fishing history of the Zhoushan Archipelago off the coast of Zhejiang and Jiangsu from its nineteenth-century expansion to the exhaustion of four of the most important fish species in the 1970s. In concluding the introduction, the author points out the methodology and data sources of the research along with their limitations.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the migration, markets, and marine life under the late Qing period. It shows that migration from the densely populated coastal regions of Zhejiang and Fujian from the 1730s to the late 1800s played an important role in initially forging close ties between China's commercial economy and the maritime ecosystem. The author goes on to make two observations. First, it was the increased commercialization in the form of financing and marketing by brokers that allowed fishers to expand their fishing operations. Second, these increased human fishing activities also carried increasingly significant environmental consequences.

Following this overview, chapter 2 focuses on the social organization and fishery regulation during the Qing dynasty's last one hundred years before its demise in 1911. It examines how social organizations of local fishermen, such as fishing lodges, resolved the conflicts among the fishermen from different areas, who were organized in different native-place groups, and the conflicts between the fishermen and the pirates.

Explored social organizations include native-place fishing groups, fishing lodges, local security, militarized lodges, and elite networks. The author finds a close relationship between the social institutions that regulate fishing activities and the religious and ritual observances of migrant fishing communities. While these observances are concerned with promoting the human welfare of fishermen rather than preserving marine life, regulations connected with these religious institutions are seen as safeguarding the fishermen's collective welfare by minimizing social disorders arising from competition for common marine resources. Further, the author points out, other than settling conflicts over common resources, social organizations and fishery regulations in the Zhoushan region, like those elsewhere around the world, did nothing to avert overexploitation of marine resources.

Chapter 3 explores the expansion and reform aimed at developing maritime fisheries to maximize fishing production from 1904 to 1929. In addition to the expansion of credit networks that drove the new economic dynamics, the scientific management and reform suggested by reform-minded elites in the early Republic years favored the new development. According to the elites, humans could use appropriate...