China aims to ramp up farmed fish processing

Published on
December 11, 2014

China is intent on driving processing of its local freshwater fish output as imports for processing slow. That’s the resolution at a recent conference in Beijing bringing industry and fish researchers together.

“Only 35 percent of China’s seafood consumption is of processed products but in developing countries the figure is 70 percent,” Wei Zhubei, a researcher at the Marine Food Engineering Research Centre told the third annual gathering of the High Volume Freshwater Fish Processing Seminar. “China is a big aquaculture country but it’s not a big processing country.”

Seafood (i.e. non-freshwater) accounts for 74 percent of total seafood processed in China, noted Wei, who believes that the country needs to develop new products from freshwater fish species. He wants China to mirror the path of Japan where surimi has become a staple in foodservice. Nonetheless, the rate of growth in freshwater processing is outpacing that of processing marine species, noted Cui He, vice secretary general of China Aquaculture Processing Promotion & Marketing Association (CAPPMA), who also spoke at the conference.

Data from the ministry of agriculture in Beijing shows China’s exports of aquatic products containing imported raw materials slipped 0.4 percent to 849,000 metric tons (MT) in the first three quarters of the year. This compares to an 8.7 percent year on year to 821,800 tons in the first three quarters of 2012, at a time when key export markets remained economically fragile. Meanwhile export value of reprocessed (imported) seafood accounted for 25.4 percent, down 1.21 percent year on year: These figures are down from 28.6 percent in 2012 (which in turn was down 2.3 percent year on year on 20121 figures). Volumes and value for exports containing domestically sourced materials have been more stable, 1.7 million MT worth USD 9.4 billion (EUR 7.56 billion) in the first three quarters of 2012, down 1.3 percent and up 12 percent respectively.

The figure for domestic input material in 2014 isn’t yet available but the overall figures do suggest a slowdown in the growth of imported processing inputs relative to the increasingly important domestic raw materials for processing.

China has a huge industry of mostly small- and medium-sized firms filleting and freezing tilapia but these are located largely in the provinces of Guangdong and Hainan, convenient to the giant port of Guangzhou from where products are shipped to key markets like the EU and United States. China has also sought to cultivate a catfish industry but this has struggled to compete with Vietnam’s massive pangasius industry.

Facing depleted seas and growing demand driven by rising incomes, China’s fisheries researchers have been tasked with coming up with new products and brands that can use species like carp and tilapia. “China needs to engage international seafood processing companies and researchers, suggested Wang Tao, vice president of the China Agricultural University,” which hosted the conference.

Consolidation and better technology are both required to increase freshwater processing, suggested Liu Qing, vice president of the China Academy of Fish Sciences. Income growth and urbanization means logistics have improved to distribute processed freshwater products, he said.

Like many industries in China, the sector is bloated with too much capacity. Most industry insiders agree China has about 8,000 to 10,000 seafood processing plants. There were 9,611 “licensed aquatic processing facilities” in 2011, down from 9,762 in 2010 according to the most complete recent data from the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. The number of enterprises however is nearer to 1,500 (since larger processing companies tend to have up to a dozen or more facilities), according to research by Guotai Junan Securities and Beijing-based Zhiyan Consulting Co., which publishes annual research report on fish processing in China. Total processing capacity increased to 24.3 million MT in 2011 from 23.9 million MT in the previous year, according to the agricultural ministry.

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