Massive aquaculture shut-down in central China as government gets tough on pollution

Published on
December 19, 2016

China’s aquaculture producers will have to modernize or quit: that’s the stark warning from authorities in Hunan Province, who are closing down vast swathes of ponds in order to remedy a dire water pollution crisis.

Freshwater aquaculture production of higher-value species like crab had soared in the central Chinese provinces of Hunan and Hubei in recent years, but that now looks set to slide due to action by Changde City Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Bureau, which says it’s trying to improve water quality in the Dongting Lake region, where algal blooms have become a problem.

Pollution, including anti-microbials like malachite green, has been dumped into the area’s lakes and reivers as a result of the periodic emptying and refilling of aquaculture ponds.

“Thousands of aquaculture cages” have been seized from water in the lake, while almost 500 pig and poultry farms in the vicinity of the lake have been closed, according to a statement from the bureau. Notably, the bureau says it has thus far “only closed 26 percent of the intended targeted farms and ponds and closures of such facilities will continue [until] 2018.”

A recent plan published by the local government in Changde has overtones of a Western environmental program, with promises to “involve various sectors and stakeholders” and vows to ensure farmers who are forcibly or voluntarily retired receive adequate compensation retraining in other vocations. This may be the result of advice Chinese policymakers receive discreetly from American and European governments and NGOs on environmental management.

Changde’s government is hoping that higher prices for better quality freshwater seafood product will pay for the environmentally friendly upgrade of the sector.

“Backward production will be no more,” it has warned.

In Changde and other Chinese regions with aquaculture sites, pressure has increased on local officials to collect data as part of a central government initiative to calculate and monitor water pollution levels. Reluctant to shut down tax-raising businesses like pig breeding or shrimp farming, officials have nonetheless been even keener to avoid publishing data that shows severe pollution problems. They have therefore rushed to close down or move the worst offenders in order to improve the data before a 2018 national deadline for preliminary publication.

Agriculture Minister Han Changfu told fisheries officials earlier this year that “inefficient” and polluting aquaculture operations will face major pressure from local governments as China seeks to implement its national data collection system for monitoring water pollution. Dryer Chinese cities will need to cut back on aquaculture and find alternative supplies, in order to avoid groundwater sources from being further eroded, Han said.

The inevitable squeeze on local supply has positive implications for importers. The overhaul, if expanded nationally, has the potential to radically reduce China’s freshwater aquaculture output and will lead to supply squeezes and higher prices. Increases in output in recent years in the Dongtai/Hunan region had helped to keep seafood price inflation under control in major cities like Shanghai, where seafood consumption is highest.

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