Faced with environmental challenges, China supporting offshore mariculture efforts

Aquaculture executives and researchers in China are celebrating what’s seen as the latest key piece of hardware for offshore aquaculture as the country continues to crack down on environmentally problematic onshore aquaculture.

Described as China’s first semi-submersible truss-based floating structure for aquaculture, the “Dehai 1” was launched in September by Zhuhai Xinpingmao Fishery Co. in the waters off southern Guangdong Province, with plans for the launch of seedlings in November. 

Looking like a ship without a hull, the vessel – 91.3 meters long and 27.6 meters wide – was designed by the Chinese Academy of Fisheries and Tianjin Desai Environment Protection Technology Co. A document from the latter describes the Dehai as an “intelligent breeding platform” with automated feeding and monitoring systems, though there is accommodation on board the Dehai for supervisory staff. 

A note from the Academy of Fisheries described the launch as a “revolution in marine aquaculture” that would lead production to move “from harbor to deep sea.” Importantly, the Dehai is resistant to damage from typhoons, according to the academy. 

The industry has been making concerted efforts to move production from on-land sites in response to increased enforcement of environmental regulations by China’s central government, which has clamped down in the past year on water pollution, illegal coastline developments, and illegal development of aquaculture facilities. China’s government agency for administering fisheries regulation appears to be coming under pressure from the Central Environmental Inspection Team, a body set up to fight the non-enforcement of the central government’s environmental regulations by regional governments. 

That pressure may have spurred officials from the Ocean and Fisheries Bureau in the key fishery port of Zhoushan to make high-profile visits to several illegal coastal construction and land reclamation sites. The bureau’s deputy head, Wang Xiaobo, was on-site to watch earthmovers replace shoreline, a sign of how seriously local government takes the recommendations of the Environment Inspection team. The news coverage however hasn’t explained why local government allowed the illegal developments and whether Wang’s office had sought action against them given the obvious damage to local aquaculture and fisheries.

Protecting the country’s coastline ought to ultimately be good news for the Chinese aquaculture industry – shellfish production centers on the country’s east coast. Incredibly, China has increased its aquaculture output by 38 times to 29.95 million tons between 1978 and 2018. Overall production in China from both aquaculture and wild-caught fisheries rose twelve-fold in the same time frame to 64.5 million tons. Yet future growth – if there is to be any – may have to come from initiatives offshore, as there are constant signs of pressure on the land-based aquaculture sector.

For example, national environmental authorities recently announced that all 45,000 cages producing crabs will be removed from Taihu Lake in eastern China by the end of December. The authorities said the action is an effort to protect water quality in the lake, one of China’s largest. The ultimatum means crab producers are “urgently seeking” new sites, according to Sun Qiang, secretary general of the Taihu Crab Breeding Association, whose members have long commanded premium prices for their freshwater crabs due to the cachet of Taihu Lake in Chinese culinary culture. 

In the larger picture, a lack of fresh water is a key challenge to the future of Chinese aquaculture, according Zeng Leng Bin of the the China National Large-Scale Fish Science and Technology Disease Prevention Project, one of the country’s leading researchers in the field. Speaking at a forum on freshwater high-efficiency aquaculture in the city of Wuhan recently, Zeng outlined an increasingly severe shortage of freshwater across the country as one of three of the major challenges to onshore aquaculture in China. The other two challenges mentioned by Zeng were the surge in enforcement of environmental regulations and the need to protect biodiversity.

Also speaking at the forum in Wuhan, Gui Jian Fang from the Institute of Aquaculture at the Chinese Academy of Sciences China, said since 2016, China’s government has prioritized environmental preservation over maximizing output from aquaculture. Gui said, in the future, this likely means an increase in more traditional methods of production, such as combined aquaculture and paddy field rice production. But Gui said the aquaculture industry needed to push forward to modernize itself by incorporating best scientific practices and more modern technology – something that presents a “huge challenge” to the sector, he said.

Even as the Dehai launch makes waves in southern China, there are other developments coming online around the country with similar goals. CCTV featured on its evening news show an offshore silver pomfret project coming into production off the coast of Zhanjiang, with projection production of 30,000 metric tons per year. Such prominent placing of the story on China’s national television outlet suggests it is part of a major policy priority by government. The ambition in that policy will demand a huge transition in Chinese aquaculture production from the currently unsustainable freshwater system that made China such a dominant international seafood player. 

But it remains to be seen how much of its production China can move offshore, or whether the offshore movement will spawn true innovation in China’s approach to mariculture.

Photo courtesy of the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute


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