Tide turning in Chinese awareness of marine conservation issues, expert says

Published on
August 28, 2019

Conservationist and marine biologist Songlin Wang heads up Chinese non-profit Qingdao Marine Conservation Society (QMCS) and Tao Ran, a Chinese ocean and fisheries conservation consultancy. Both organizations collaborate with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and with Ocean Outcomes, an Asia-focused, U.S.-based organization promoting sustainable solutions for the seafood sector. Wang talked to SeafoodSource about changing Chinese attitudes to sustainability and his organisation’s rating and education initiative, the China Seafood Sustainability Assessment (CSSA) – a “science-based independent seafood sustainability rating scheme.”

SeafoodSource: Has the Chinese public’s awareness of sustainability issues surrounding the seafood it consumes increased in recent years, and if so, what is driving this increased awareness?

Wang: The public awareness of marine environmental issues in general has been increasing rather fast, thanks a lot to the documentaries such as BBC Blue Planet and cartoons such as The Octonauts, which has a tremendous impact on kids. Certainly, the government, media and leading NGOs all played constructive roles here.

The public understanding of seafood sustainability has also been gradually increasing, but in a baby-stepping manner. The reason is that it takes NGOs with more specific expertise to develop assessment and education tools. Only a handful of NGOs players, such as QMCS, China Blue, WWF-China, GoalBlue, the ASC, and the Marine Stewardship Council, have public education initiatives relevant to seafood sustainability. Only a small number of industry leaders, noticeably IKEA, Hyatt and Hilton and to a lesser degree Walmart, Aeon, Carrefour, Aldi, Shangri-la [hotels], and Hema Fresh have some commitment to seafood sustainability. Currently, I think IKEA is the most proactive business leader in China. 

SeafoodSource: How easy is it to get donations or investment from Chinese donors to support your work?

Wang: It is extremely difficult to get Chinese donors to support work relevant to marine conservation in general, let alone seafood sustainability. Part of the reason is most charity and industry donors want to fund "immediate wins" or grassroots NGOs addressing “burning issues.” Seafood sustainability assessment or rating is often seen as a research project that should be taken by the academic sectors. Our China Seafood Sustainability Assessment initiative wouldn’t be able to proceed without technical capacity building from SeafoodWatch and sponsorship via the Packard and SEE Foundations, and the Paradise Foundation.

SeafoodSource: What is the priority for your work this year?

Wang: My focus is always to keep growing our team affiliated with Tao Ran Consulting (TR) and QMCS as a leading player in China's sustainable seafood movement. 

My top three priorities of this year include ensuring the three FIPs – the red swimming crab  fishery in the East China Sea; the Japanese flying squid fishery in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea; and the tuna fishery in the West and Central Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean – run jointly between O2 [Ocean Outcomes] and Tao Ran generate solid outcomes. This is increasingly challenging given China and the U.S. are still in a trade war and many key buyers are U.S.-based.

Another priority is to support ASC under an ASC-Tao Ran strategic partnership to play an increasingly positive impact in driving the Chinese and the wider Asian aquaculture and seafood industry in an environmentally and socially responsible direction.

Also, a priority is to grow CSSA into China's most influential science-based independent seafood sustainability rating scheme and to complete the website and social media infrastructure of CSSA. Current we have between 2,000 to 4,000 readers in our WeChat platform. We hope to double this figure next year.

SeafoodSource: Do you think the government’s increased enforcement of environmental rules is changing the aquaculture sector in China for the better?

Wang: Yes, I think the direction of the reform and most desires of the policy are targeting the right challenges. Positive changes will happen faster if the government’s decision-makers could encourage more civil society players representing the public's environmental interest and industrial players representing the market to help.

SeafoodSource: Do you sense there is a change in the sector due to greater concentration of ownership? Many big feed companies like Haid and Tongwei are now expanding into aquaculture and seafood, while smaller producers are leaving because they can’t meet the new environmental rules.

Wang: Yes, I think increasing concentration of ownership in both aquaculture and fisheries sector will happen. The positive side is that large companies with big brands are more likely to take care of sustainability issues and [the] efforts of government and NGOs can be more focused on those smaller group of big players. The negative side is that the process will be likely to create equity and livelihood issues for the tens of thousands of smaller-scale and individual fishermen and fish farmers.

SeafoodSource: Do you think the “blue ocean” strategy and offshore aquaculture is a sustainable replacement for China’s on-land, freshwater aquaculture sector, which is being squeezed out due to concerns over pollution?

Wang: Yes, I think in general this is a positive step. But offshore aquaculture development does need science-based environmental impact assessments to guide [them] and need to follow best environmental and social practices. For example, the several gigantic offshore Atlantic salmon under development or pilot test in the central part of the Yellow Sea are widely applauded as a smart use of the Yellow Sea Cold Water Mass. Yet no decision-makers or their leading scientific advisers are considering the need to mitigate negative environmental impacts and conserve at least a certain portion of the unique ecosystem covered the Yellow Sea Cold Water Mass. As a marine researcher in my twenties, I sampled the mass and understand how unique it is – home to unique biodiversity and cold-water fish stocks, such as a Pacific cod population you can find nowhere else in Chinese waters! 

SeafoodSource: What kind of assistance can your organization give in the planning process so that this offshore aquaculture is sustainable?

Wang: If we have the right capacity, I hope QMCS can at least help by introducing best global practices represented by ASC standards and advocate – with a few like-minded leading ecologists and conservation-focused NGOs and even industrial leaders – for the establishment of offshore MPAs [marine protected areas], starting with the Yellow Sea Cold Water Mass.

SeafoodSource: What kind of expertise can China and more traditional aquaculture powers like Norway share to expand sustainable aquaculture?

Wang: At the governmental level, the policies and regulations in Norway that drive the Norwegian salmon aquaculture industry [are] a world-class model for Chinese decision-makers to learn from and to adapt. 

At a research and development level, key issues for collaboration are environmentally-friendly feed. Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) and other low-pollution, energy-efficient systems would be one of the few key areas for China, U.S. and Norway to explore collaboration.

At an NGO and industry level, there is a lot to learn how in the U.S. and Norwegian NGOs and industry are working towards shared sustainability goals. 

SeafoodSource: Is there a lot of collaboration and sharing of knowledge between China and Western aquaculture companies and experts?

Wang: For sure, there is a great deal of exchange among experts. For companies, I know much less. I assume wide exchange exists in the field of at least feed and RAS, net-pen as well as cage design and operation technology. 

Photo courtesy of SeaWeb Seafood Summit

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