China’s seafood sector rapidly growing more efficient and valuable

Published on
January 3, 2019

There’s a lot of data being quoted recently by China’s government to show that these are prosperous times for China’s fishermen and fish farmers. 

A perusal of several past editions of the Fisheries Yearbook, an annual overview of the state of the industry produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, shows there has been a 41 percent increase in the average earnings of workers in the sector over four years.

But incomes remain low by comparison to industrial wages. Average annual incomes rose from CNY 13,039 (USD 1,900, EUR 1,675) in 2013 to CNY 18,453 (USD 2,670, EUR 2,370) in 2017, but this looks low when taking into account the fact that the minimum wage in Guangzhou is CNY 3,500 (USD 510, EUR 450) per month.

It's thus not surprising that there has been an exodus of workers from the industry, with numbers falling from 20.65 million in 2013 to 19.31 million in 2017.

Yet productivity looks high given the scale of the increase in the value of output over the same period. Total output from fisheries went from CNY 193 billion (USD 28.1 billion, EUR 24.8 billion) in 2013 to CNY 247 billion (USD 36 billion, EUR 31.7 billion) in 2017, an increase of 27.9 percent – even though the labor force in the sector fell 6.4 percent in that period.

Taking that figure apart reveals that the bulk of the growth is coming from what the Chinese statisticians categorize as “catering, logistics, and other services” related to fisheries and seafood. This category grew 43 percent in value terms between 2013 and 2017 to CNY 678 billion (USD 98.8 billion, EUR 87.1 billion). This could reveal how the industry is shifting to less labor-intensive activities.

Growth in the “fisheries construction” sector, which includes everything from boat construction and repair to port expansion and maintenance, also rose significantly – 25.3 percent over the 2013-2017 period to CNY 56.6 billion (USD 8.3 billion, EUR 7.3 billion) in 2017.

There is data to suggest that the aquaculture sector is getting more efficient – or shifting to raising more valuable species. The Ministry of Agriculture data showed freshwater aquaculture grew significantly in value, rising 25.9 percent to CNY 587.6 billion (USD 85.6 billion, EUR 75.5 billion), which seems to match stated government plans to cool off efforts to grow more volume and instead focus on improving quality and reducing the environmental impacts of intensive aquaculture.  

All of this is happening at the same time as sharp shrinkage in land used for aquaculture – 11.4 percent less land was used for aquaculture in 2017 than the year before, which suggest rising efficiency as the industry adapts new technology, while an environmental crackdown reduces the amount of terrain available for aquaculture. 

Outpacing even freshwater aquaculture, China’s seafood sector saw its strongest growth in farmed seawater aquaculture, a sector that grew 26.9 percent in value terms between 2013 and 2017 to CNY 330.7 billion (USD 48.2 billion, EUR 42.5 billion). In fact, there’s been a much faster growth in mariculture output, while aquaculture has flatlined. At 20.07 million metric tons (MT), farmed seawater output stands at 60.23 percent of overall seawater produce and grew by 4.46 percent, whereas freshwater aquaculture, having produced 29.05 million MT, grew only 0.03 percent by volume.

China’s mariculture scene is also shifting to species of higher value. While there was a 10.6 percent increase in crustacean output (largely down to increased farming of crayfish and crabs), in 2017, there was a sharp fall-off (9.7 percent) in shellfish production year-on-year. 

Even as China’s demand for food increases, the fishery sector has clearly outpaced agriculture and livestock in revenue growth terms. There was a 91 percent increase in the value of output of the fishery industry between 2010 and 2017, according to another study of the sector by the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing. For comparison, in the same period, the value of the livestock sector – which includes the huge pork and poultry sectors – increased 45 percent in value terms. Overall, it is still worth more than twice the output of the fishery sector.

All of this points to growing efficiency in a sector which is hermorraging workers even as value of output grows. Even as the number of seafood processing facilities actually rose in 2017 however these appear to be employing few workers and catering to a more lucrative, automated domestic market as new online players like Alibaba have opened new processing facilities - for salmon – it appears there are other established food processors which are now processing seafood for the domestic market.

Despite the advancement of China’s seafood industry, the country continues to lack a major, domestically or internationally recognized and respected seafood brand and the country’s seafood sector remains a chaotic mix of processors and aquaculture producers with an export-oriented background, along with speculative new entrants drawn by the high margins of imported seafood. 

The next phase for China’s seafood sector becoming more productive and efficient is in adding more value through branding and premium-ization of product.

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