The winding route to sustainability certification adoption in China

Published on
November 8, 2018

In a remarkable turnaround over the past several years, China has shifted from prioritizing production and value in its domestic seafood sector to placing a greater emphasis on the environment.

China’s government has begun an unprecedented clean-up of the country’s chaotic and fragmented aquaculture sector. In the latest in a slew of environmental enforcement actions that have ramped up over the past year, thousands of tons of fry and grown fish were lifted from ponds in the Baiyang Dian Lake region of Hebei Province near Beijing this month as authorities proceed with the restoration of the lake’s waters and nearby wetlands. In Jiangxi Province, a three-year sentence for buying and frying a protected species – a Yangtze River mullet – was handed down to a restaurateur, who incriminated himself by posting photos of the act on social media. And southern Guangxi Province – a major production center for shrimp and tilapia – has been the focus of inspections by the National Environmental Inspectorate, the team designed to ensure enforcement of environmental laws ignored by local governments. Nearly 3,000 aquaculture farmers were cleared off the Jiulong River as part of the inspections, which aim to clean the nation’s chronically polluted waterways.

The country’s current emphasis on cleaning up the local production scene presents a possible opening for environment-focused non-governmental organizations to test China’s willingness to collaborate. But China’s efforts don’t seem to be driven in sync with global efforts towards environmentally responsible seafood production. Considering the fact that China is on course to be the world’s top producer, buyer, and consumer of seafood very soon, and thus will dictate prices and supply chains for decades to come, there is a notable absence of significant discussion of China – or input by China – in creating sustainability standards for its seafood marketplace. 

There are obviously challenges for NGOs in collaborating with China on seafood sustainability, the most significant of which is the huge difference in governance culture between China and much of the West. There are no truly independent voices for the seafood industry in China, only state-sponsored and -monitored ones. There’s little of the collaboration based on open sharing of data and verification in China. And China is very prickly about criticism from international NGOs. Environmental groups that have chosen to work with China, like Greenpeace and WWF, have decided to refrain from more than muted public criticism in return for access.    

But there are several factors currently coalescing to make the present moment an auspicious one for the sustainability movement to make inroads in China.

The first is food safety. Wary after decades of food safety scandals, Chinese consumers have far greater trust in international certifications and products.

The second is the fallout from environmental damage due caused by prior extensive, intensive aquaculture practices. This is clearly a problem that is now being addressed by authorities.

The third is an outward shift amongst China’s leading seafood firms to welcome the chance to learn from global partners about ways to improve their image, efficiency, and bottom line.

Finally, senior Chinese fisheries officials have stated their intention to shift the country’s aquaculture focus from volume to quality and value. As local incomes rise, China badly needs to market more premium products, and to do so, it needs to convince local consumers there’s a reason to pay more.

A China-focused sustainability certification scheme would add to the credibility and pricing power of Chinese product, and established Western certification systems have a role to play to help China make that transition. But it should be understood as a prerequisite that China will have to have a say in how certifications are drawn up and implemented, on their standards and rules.

Nevertheless, a collaborative effort could benefit all parties. Fishing firms and seafood brands across the world have set ambitious targets for sustainable sourcing for the coming decades. But China’s growing demand – and willingness to pay premium prices – will have to be factored into these goals and projections.

Also, China has become an increasingly important development partner in Asia and in developing countries further afield, as part of its “One Belt, One Road” program that seeks to increase China’s economic links to the rest of the world.

The China Freshwater Fishery Research Center, part of the Academy of Fisheries, is an important dispenser of fisheries education across Asia and the developing world. At a recent meeting of the Central Asia and Caucuses fishery training event in Turkey (for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkey), fisheries researcher Zhu Jian was mobbed by attendees seeking advice and cooperation. China has 27 experts in the field in the region, and an additional 60 fisheries leaders have come to China for training, according to Zhu.

And China has similar outreach efforts ongoing in many other corners of the globe. Given the scale of its market and its reach, there is no better place to innovate, test solutions and get sustainability right than in China. 

The alternative to NGOs working with China on a sustainability certification may look like the path recently taken by Ecuador’s shrimp industry, which recently launched its own seafood sustainability brand and marketing campaign.

This doesn’t need to happen. China has many lessons to share, and much need of advice on how to do things better. 

There is definitively a lack of capacity for fishery management in Asia. And there are different concepts of sustainability in Asia and in China specifically. Some of these different concepts will have to be taken into account if existing certification systems are to have the influence they’d like in Asia.

Otherwise, the seafood world may see a very different type of certification landscape emerge out of China. 

Photo courtesy of Chongqing News

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