Small fish farmers in China diversify  


SeafoodSource staff

Published on
October 2, 2012

Harvest time may have arrived for fish farms in rural China but some are no longer relying on bulk fish sales. A series of pond-based fish farms in Ningxia province in China’s northwestern hinterlands revealed how a growing middle class is providing an alternative source of income to fish farmers.

Fifty kilometers from the provincial capital Yinchuan, Wang Shui and her husband cultivate carp and catfish in a hectare of pondland. The couple supply fish to Yinchuan wholesalers and sell to distributors as far away as Tibet. However, a steady flow of hobby fishermen coming from nearby cities are accounting for a growing share of the Wang’s customers.

“They pay RMB 50 for the day or if they want to come for just one fish we charge them RMB 10 per jin (500g),” explained Wang. “Many of them are government officials and business people who are stressed out and want to get away from it all.”

A half dozen fishermen in matching casual sweaters and RMB 500 fishing rods fished the Wang's ponds recently. They were all sales executives from the Shenhua Group, one of China's leading coal miners with extensive mines in Ningxia.

The couple last year doubled the size of their allotment and expect business to grow, both from hobbyists and market demand. The couple sells carp for RMB 6 per 500g, having paid approximately RMB1 for each fry. The growing period is up to six months, explained Wang. “The hobby fishers of course will fish some of the younger fish before they’re grown.”

The Wangs feed their fish with feed sourced locally, from the Ningxia subsidiary of the Da Bei Nong Group, an agribusiness conglomerate listed in Shanghai. They have also purchased feed produced by the Peru-based feed firm Exalmar, but find that local feed, while of a substandard quality, is more economical. The other big expense is water: Next year they’ll drain the ponds and refill them with water transported from the nearby Yellow River. “That costs a lot in piping and trucking,” said Wang.

September and October are peak production time in the northwest China fish-farming sector, before the onset of a long, cold winter (temperatures in Ningxia go as low as minus 30C). At the Xi Hu fish market in Wuzhong, a smaller Ningxia city, vendors explained that carp prices as low as RMB 4 per 500g (for silver carp) habitually increase by up to 30 percent come January and February. Catfish prices, however, can surge to RMB 40 (compared to RMB 15 for farmed) if harvested from the Yellow River.

Whereas saltwater species dominate Western seafood consumption, China has traditionally cultivated freshwater species such as carp. However, the long-term outlook for carp consumption is not so promising. Carp lacks the “prestige” element, claimed Gorjan Nikolik, aquaculture industry analyst at Rabobank in Singapore. While carp accounts for more than 60 percent of China’s aquaculture — the bulk of it eaten in poorer inland provinces — increasing prosperity in China means long-term demand will likely switch to “aspirational” high-end species such as bass and salmon, said Nikolik. Urbanization means the key low-income consumption bracket for carp will decrease rather than increase, explained the Singapore-based Rabobank analyst, speaking at a feed conference in Beijing. "Carp is not the business you want to be in to exploit the consumers of the future in China," added Nikolik.

At the Xi Hu market a stream of motorbike couriers collect canvas sacks of live fish, to be dropped into tanks at local restaurants. Wuzhong, like many smaller Chinese cities, has undergone a building boom in the past 10 years, with ring roads and shopping streets built from scratch. The resulting influx of cash through the city has created jobs and a wave of new restaurants. The long-term viability of such a growth model, fuelled with easy credit from state banks, remains questionable. Meanwhile, a wave of speculative house building has left the city with a glut of residential high rises apparently surplus to the local population.

However, the Wangs are optimistic, so much so that they’re doubling their income by working in city catering jobs in the day and hiring two local peasants to feed their fish on weekdays. Rumoured government subsidies to fish farmers would help them expand further, said Wang, who believes fish farmers should get the same support as local grain farmers, who get subsidies to cover 30 percent of farm machinery prices.

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