Q&A with Xuefeng Han, Secretary-General of the Hainin Tilapia Sustainability Alliance

Published on
December 5, 2016

Xuefeng Han is Secretary-General of the Hainan Tilapia Sustainability Alliance, an industry-led initiative to promote sustainable tilapia production in China. Its particular focus is the industry in Hainan, China's southern tropical island province, which ranks among the country’s top three tilapia-producing regions. With assistance from the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) and the China Blue Sustainability, the alliance encourages members to follow a Code of Good Practice from a zonal management aspect that improves quality as well as environmental sustainability of tilapia output.

SeafoodSource: Has 2016 been a good year for your members?

Han: For our members and us, 2016 has been a mixed year of both happiness and anxiety. The happiness comes from the weather. In 2016, the high temperature weather conditions eased compared with that of 2015 and this is good news for [tilapia] farming. Our anxiety has mainly been caused by the new feed sales model. The direct sales of the feed to the farmers has impacted upon the traditional credit sales model [for feed sales] in the Hainan market. A lot of mainland feed brands entered the Hainan market because of the direct sales model [which means they sell directly to farmers rather than through intermediaries who offered credit to farmers who often paid when their fish was sold]. Various levels of feed quality being supplied by different brands and some farmers’ impulsive purchase behavior has resulted in a higher feed-conversion ratio. In the long run, the decreasing ratio of feed being sold by credit actually can improve the capital chain for the whole industry. It is also a case of ‘survival of the fittest.’ But we will still face serious problems. The export price for tilapia has been hovering around the low point in 2016. As a result, the enthusiasm of our members in farming, feed and processing has been discouraged.

SeafoodSource: Chinese consumers seem willing to pay more money for imported seafood. Is it harder to sell tilapia products in the domestic market?

Han: According to the traditional Chinese diet, we prefer to have full fish, which means fish with head and tail, which symbolizes that we will have rich and full lives from the beginning of one year until the end. In addition, China’s traditional cuisine and food culture requires for fresh and live aquatic products…these are always ruling the market. Tilapia emerged as an export-led product since the late 1990s and since then fillets have become the main market form. We’ve had domestic sales since the start of tilapia production, though [tilapia] has not gained recognition of the mass market, due to different dietary traditions. But in recent years, China has sped up its urbanization and the consumption concepts for younger generations differ from the older ones. The requirement for convenient, nutritious and healthy food is rising and this has brought a new opportunity for tilapia products to expand domestic market. Factories have begun to produce specific products in line with regional cuisine like spicy fillet, broiled fish and sauce braised fish. They are also developing new product forms which will be more suitable for urban market and young consumers. Hopefully in the near future, we will see an acceleration in the pace of domestic tilapia sales.

SeafoodSource: Are tilapia farmers moving to produce other species like shrimp and grouper?

Han: I don’t think this will happen on a large-scale. Take white shrimp as an example. There are higher requirements on aquaculture environment, investment and skills for farming white shrimp compared to those of tilapia and it is very hard for most tilapia farmers to fulfill those requirements. A small group of wealthy farmers with advanced farming experiences have already begun a tilapia and shrimp mixed-farming model in order to increase profit margin and they have already gained from this. But in general, I have confidence about the future of tilapia and I believe the tilapia sector will see better development.

SeafoodSource: A lot is said about the Chinese seafood industry moving to value-added and innovative products. Any there any examples of value-added tilapia products in China?

Han: As a fish of good quality, high nutritional value and boneless meat, tilapia enjoys many merits in comparison to other fresh-water products. We know tilapia has been accredited by the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations] as “The 21st Century Fish” and identified as an animal protein equally as important as chicken. In recent years, the Hainan tilapia industry has tried to make use of the advantage of tilapia in developing many types of tilapia products according to the habits and cuisines of Chinese consumers, such as hot pot and broiled fish products. Sales distribution and platforms have been established and will continue to be established for the domestic market. We have also just built up the traceability system which will work together with our own supervisory system to guarantee the safety, traceability and transparency of tilapia under our supervision. This will bring tremendous significance for adding value to tilapia products. In the future, accompanied by the brand-building and promotion of fully traceable tilapia products, we believe it can act as a model for the rest of the aquaculture industry.

SeafoodSource: Can China hope to compete with pangasius production in Vietnam, which is lower cost and already sells cheap fish into China?

Han: It is true that Vietnam pangasius entered Chinese market based on very low price, but its taste and meat quality are both quite different from those of tilapia. The promotion of pangasius in China relies on low price and being suitable for some traditional cuisine. Hainan tilapia has obvious advantages in quality and food safety. I feel that these two products belong to different standards and I think the target consumer and market and also cooking style of tilapia will not be competing with those of pangasius. We want to see a positive competition which will bring good change to the industry. However, we do hope Vietnam pangasius production can focus more on better quality control and food safety supervision, which we have already applied to and will always emphasize on in the case of Hainan tilapia.

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