China has hailed the return of two research vessels from a four-month survey of the Indian Ocean that estimated fish stocks and biomass and sought out new species for China’s aquaculture sector.

Based at ports in Qingdao and Shanghai, the two vessels were staffed by over 100 researchers from the Qingdao-based Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences. In all, the researchers took samples of 112 different species and organisms in the northwest region of the Indian Ocean, according to Zhao Xian Yong, another of the scientists, who spoke with local media on return to China. The voyage researched fishery resources for China’s distant-water fishing fleet, said Zhao, but will also contribute knowledge to “sustainable fishing and protection of ocean organisms,” he explained.

Samples of various marine species collected by the Lan Hai 101 and the Lan Hai 201 will be taken to the National Fishery Biological Germplasm Resource Bank. Germplasm and seed resources have become buzzwords in Chinese policy circles in recent years as the country seeks to reduce a reliance on foreign seeds, particularly at a time of rising geopolitical tensions.

Jin Yue, the project’s lead scientist, described the 3,000-ton Lan Hai 101 as bristling with “very sophisticated instruments.” He also said that staff on the vessel had taken “rare species” like turtles and pufferfish onboard for examination but “these were always returned to the wild.”

Both Lan Hai 101 and the Lan Hai 201 were launched in 2019 with much fanfare, with the Chinese government touting them as an important investment into Chinese fisheries research.

“These are our most modern and largest vessels so far,” then-Chinese Academy of Fisheries Sciences President Wang Xiao Hu said at their launch ceremony in Shanghai.

The Chinese government has committed to growing its national fisheries survey fleet, known as China Marine Research Vessels, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for the building of a “strong maritime country,” according to Reuters.

Other Asian nations, including India, have warned the vessels are capable of gathering information, including on ocean depths, currents, and temperature, that can be useful for the Chinese military, especially in the operation of submarines.

Those concerns were outlined in a recent report, “Surveying the Seas: China’s Dual-Use Research Operations in the Indian Ocean,” from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank based in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

“While scientific and commercial benefits may accrue from Chinese oceanographic research, these activities may also prove crucial for the [People’s Liberation Army] in expanding its operational reach and capabilities in the Indian Ocean,” it said. “This expansion poses a significant challenge to key regional players like India, as well as to the United States and its allies.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning dismissed those concerns, stating that China’s marine scientific research fully complied with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We hope that the relevant parties will take an objective view of China’s marine scientific research activities and refrain from speculating through coloured glasses,” Mao said at a press conference in January 2024.