China shifting aquaculture production to higher-value species

China’s government is supporting the development of new state-of-the-art aquaculture facilities with the intent of modernizing the sector.

Coming in the form of priority status that brings with it expedited permitting, incentive programs, and direct or indirect subsidies, China’s government – on the federal, provincial, and local levels – is pursuing a shift in strategy away from mass production of low-value species like carp and tilapia, and towards higher-value species like grouper, sea bass and sea bream, and trout and salmon.

Two recently-published government documents point to the desired direction of travel for China’s aquaculture sector: the so-called “Number One Document” from China’s Department of Agriculture, and the “Shandong Provincial Level 2019 Review of Poverty Alleviation by Dragon Head Companies,” published by authorities in Qingdao, the coastal city at the heart of the aquaculture and seafood processing region of Shandong.

The “Number One Document” acts as a blueprint setting the department’s priorities for the year ahead. This year’s document calls for an “industrial-scale” development of recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facilities and for the promotion of fish-rice co-production and “carbon capture fisheries.” It also prioritizes further mitigation of mudflat and earthenware aquaculture, a primary source of production of low-value species, but also the cause of significant environmental damage across a land footprint spanning the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined.

One new project supported by the government is the 30,000-square-meter Hongqi (Red Flag) Modern Fishery Industrial Park at Taojing, near the city of Rizhao. The Donggang Water Group, a government utilities company, spent CNY 260 million (USD 36.4 million, EUR 33.8 million) to open the keystone project in the park, a new recirculating [RAS] facility growing grouper and sea bass. As the Red Flag Park earned classification as a poverty alleviation project, Donggang Water Group was entitled to subsidies for innovation, social security, and training. And as a value-added feature to the project, tourists pay to visit the facility, walk along glass-lined corridors to view the fish (and pay extra to feed them if they like), and dine at seafood restaurants in the park.

Adding a component of environmental responsibility to its development efforts, Red Flag Modern Fisheries Industrial Park is part of a broader CNY 6.71 billion (USD 939 million, EUR 872 million) investment by Rizhao over three years to restore 21.8 kilometers of shoreline and restore more than 6,000 acres of wetlands. The repair rate of damaged shorelines will reach 95 percent.

The Red Flag Park is emblematic of a broader trend across the sector in Shandong, long a key region of China’s aquaculture sector. Under the government’s plan, four new fishery parks will be built and 3,300 hectares of new marine pastures will be added offshore.

In its own document, Qingdao’s government said it wants fishery companies to combine with state academic and research agencies to deliver higher-value species. The document details successful examples of collaboration between researchers and seafood companies, pointing to the Qingdao Rui Zi Group teaming with the Yellow Sea Research Academy to develop the “Superior Sea Cucumber No. 1” variety of seed. That species fetches prices 70 percent in excess of the average, according to the document, provided to SeafoodSource by the provincial branch of the Ocean and Fisheries Bureau.

Other projects highlighted by the document are the China Ocean University collaboration with Qingdao Jin Sha Aquatic Products Development Co to develop the “Hai Da No. 3” variety of oyster which, the company claims, fetches “130 percent of the price of regular oysters.” And the “white jade sea cucumber” variety, another creation of the Yellow Sea Fisheries Academy. Cultivated in cooperation with Qingdao Jin Hai Fu Yuan Ocean Ltd., the company claims the product is stocked by the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, a luxury dwelling for state guests. Separately, Qingdao Ju Da Yang Zao Ye Group’s “Yue Hai’ organic sea cucumber variety is served at the Great “all of the People on Tiananmen Square.

In addition to upping the value of its aquaculture production, Qingdao clearly also wants to shift more of it into the sea. It has given support to Shandong Deepwater Coldwater Group Development Co.’s installation of a second deep-water cage to follow up on its groundbreaking offshore salmon cage, the “Shen Lan No.1” (Deep Blue No. 1). It aims for 5,000 tons per year of output. And Shandong Deepwater, a Guoxin conglomerate, has installed the first “intelligent” aquaculture vessel offshore, aiming for 3,200 tons per year. 

The Qingdao plan specifically names high-value yellow croaker and yellow sea bream (Pagrosomus major) as other species it hopes to encourage offshore aquaculture producers to pursue.

“Ocean production will give a wild taste,” it states. “It will also reduce fat content in the fish and increase the value four- or five-fold.”

A move to premium species is also highlighted in the blueprint for aquaculture published recently by the local government of Binzhou, also in Shandong Province. The document highlights sea horse, grouper, and sea bass as priority species, alongside shellfish. And Binzhou is also pursuing a branding campaign, with the “Binzhou golden oyster” and the “Binzhou clam” named as species listed for promotion under a geographic indicators project that will restrict the right of producers elsewhere to use the Binzhou appellations.

Additionally, Binzhou is investing CNY 700 million (USD 98 million, EUR 91 million) of public funds to build out “sea ranches.” The Binzhou plan also includes a program for “shang guang xia yu” – an industry term literally translating to “above fish, below energy,” referring to an increasingly popular move to place solar panels over aquaculture ponds. Under the plan, Binzhou will add panels above 6,000 hectares of aquaculture ponds. Public funds will also back the establishment of a “deep” seafood processing plant – a reference to local moves towards more value-added product.

However, despite the highly-touted environmental bona fides of the new aquaculture projects being launched across China, some environment-focused non-governmental organizations are expressing concern that China is merely exchanging one set of problems for another. The feed requirements the higher-value, carnivorous species will require much greater quantities of fishmeal unless viable alternatives are found, they have warned. And with earlier imported species, such as the red swamp crayfish and tilapia, now classified as invasive species, having taken over large swathes of China’s natural wetlands, the NGOs fear that the introduction of even more non-native species might contribute to further environmental harm.

Photo courtesy of Sunkfa


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