China's New Year gift to the world: aquaculture know-how

As Chinese New Year approaches, the dining halls of China’s Agriculture Ministry in the central Beijing district of Tuanjiehu get busy with well-wishers from various embassies dropping in with seasonal gifts or for banquets with officials.

Emissaries in Beijing have been beating a path to the fisheries section at the Agriculture Ministry to greet fisheries officials who maintain relations with counterparts in most countries on the planet. 

The gifts aren’t just flowing in one direction. Even as it weeds out low-tech and unlicensed operators in its own aquaculture sector, China is offering aquaculture expertise to developing nations throughout the world.  When Chinese New Year festivities are over, it’s not unreasonable to expect a whole new range of training programs to be born out of those banquets and gift exchanges. These are transactional relationships – developing countries need training and China needs seafood. But they also stand to change the global aquaculture production map.     

And it’s not new – China has been at this game for many years now. Just last month, aquaculture officials from around the world were in China’s key freshwater training base for training in bass (perch) production. Delegates from Benin, Ghana, Laos, Liberia, Myanmar, the Seychelles, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia were in Wuxi Academy and visited Jiangsu Shui Xian Industry Co. Ltd. to see production on site.

Also last month, China hosted a delegation of Pakistani aquaculture researchers led by Professor Ghazala Siddiqui from the University of Karachi, which visited the China Academy of Fisheries Sciences (CAFS). Fisheries officials from Cambodia, meanwhile, were hosted by local government in Hainan, China’s southern island province and a production center for tilapia and shrimp. 

And separately, a group of Malaysian aquaculture workers recently took place in a training program in China’s southern Guangdong Province. The Malaysians were there under the auspices of a 2015 agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that has the goal of growing aquaculture in Southeast Asia – a key supplier of China’s seafood import needs. As part of their trip, the Malaysians visited the Guangdong provincial fisheries breeding quality protection center, the national level Guangdong Tilapia Improved Breeding Center, and several aquaculture enterprises including Jiangmen City Zhen Ye Aquatic Products Co.

“We want to share China’s research and management expertise with Southeast Asia, we hope Malaysia can then recommend China breeding products and technology,” said Jiang Shi Gui, a genetics expert and deputy head of the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute, a Guangzhou entity under CAFS, where Jiang is a professor.

China has much expertise upon which to draw. The trainers for the Malaysian delegation included researchers from CAFS entities like the South China Sea Aquatic Research Academy, the Guangdong Ocean Fisheries Experiment Center, and the Guangdong Ocean University, as well as the provincial Animal Disease Prevention Center. Training was also provided by Yangzhou University and several aquaculture firms from Baoying County near Yangzhou, a hub of the freshwater crab breeding industry.

But even as it provides training for other developing countries, China has been steadily closing down production at home as it grapples with chronic water pollution and scarcity on some of its key waterways. As of 1 February, the national government announced it will cancel licenses to produce mitten crabs as well as anchovies and saury fish on the Yangtze River.

Due to both environmental concerns and a forecast by government experts predicting demand for seafood will continue to grow in China while national output is expected to remain stagnant, China would like to see neighboring states begin to supply it with more of the seafood it needs. Various free trade deals will give China access, while China Customs has been busy equipping smaller regional airports and ports to do customs processing as new routes open up. In particular, the ASEAN bloc has emerged as a key partner in Chinese efforts – a destination for China’s processed seafood exports, and an increasingly important supplier of live and chilled seafood. 

While there is little doubt China is looking to import more seafood, a bigger question is whether it will export its aquaculture businesses to other countries. Expanding abroad could present a lucrative opportunity for Chinese conglomerates, and give them a chance to test new aquaculture systems and species. One such example is the Pengding Ecological Agriculture Co. in the outskirts of Chongqing in southwestern China. As part of a poverty eradication program in rural areas surrounding the city, residents are being given grant-aided jobs to farm a 20-hectare facility where ponds are monitored real-time on computer screens to increase efficiency and limit pollution. 

This is a government show project, but new business models involving big data, e-commerce, and rural tourism are being shaped around a rapidly urbanizing Chinese society where labor is growing scarce, even in poorer rural areas. Similar “rural revitalization” programs are happening in many other cities in China, such as in Qingdao, where government is subsidizing a range of new fish farms in poorer rural areas with incentives for locals to sell the seafood through e-commerce and rural tourism. 

It may be that China begins to migrate these models abroad, along with the country’s aquaculture expertise. And that could also mean that some of the worst practices of Chinese aquaculture –over-intensive production which has ruined so many Chinese waterways, causing government to embark on the current crackdown – will be repeated in other countries. 


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