Coronavirus accelerates trends driving China’s seafood sector
The coronavirus crisis, now surpassing 10 months in length in China, is accelerating longer-term trends that have been developing in the country’s seafood marketplace for nearly a decade.
China typically sends millions of tourists around the world during the National Day holiday, which took place 1 October this year. But with international travel restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those who typically would have traveled abroad stayed home, visiting local tourist attractions instead.
The inability of Chinese tourists to travel en masse to usual hot spots like Thailand and Singapore has been a boon for many players in China’s domestic seafood industry, from Hainan anglers to the operators of the Geng Hai, an aquaculture platform anchored in the East China Sea off the coast of Shandong Province.
In China’s key tilapia producing province of Hainan, several large fish processing and exporting firms drew in anglers to the port city of Wenchang, where authorities have launched a program to reskill fishermen to work in tourism. The Hainan Qin Fu Group – a leading exporter of tilapia – is one of the firms involved in the development of a pilot angling center in Wenchang, staffed by former fishermen. Rushed into existence by local government, the Hainan Leisure Angling Association aims to develop an “angling brand” for the island, which also has a huge tourism industry. The Hainan Wen Ti Travel Industry Investment Co. and Hainan Qi Zhou Ocean Leisure Fishing Industry Co. are also involved in the project.
The record domestic tourism boom during the National Day holiday also reinforced the business plans of an offshore aquaculture developer, which believes visitor fees can supplement its earnings from fish farming. In Shandong, the “Geng Hai Number 1” platform drew a surge of tourists during this years National Day holiday. Ferried out from Yantai city, visitors paid to feed and catch fish aboard the Geng Hai, which is operated by the Shandong Ocean Group.
The company aims to draw 150,000 tourists per year to the Geng Hai and will add a restaurant and a hotel aboard in a next phase of development, CEO Wei Yan told the provincial broadcasting station Shandong TV in a recent interview. He predicted the Geng Hai will be popular as a “unique” wedding venue and with corporate training and entertaining events.
The Geng Hai tourist draw is part of the Shandong government’s stated policy to “reduce quantity improve income” in its aquaculture sector. The initiative got a boost recently from Zhang Xianliang, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s Fisheries Administration Bureau, the key regulatory body for the sector, who promised government assistance in establishing hatcheries and grow-out facilities to supply offshore installations like the Geng Hai. In addition, Shandong’s local government has backed the Geng Hai by facilitating licenses and financing.
“Government underwrote this project,” Sun Cheng Lie, head of the Yantai office of the Ocean and Fisheries Bureau, which supervises sea fisheries, told Shandong TV. However, setting standards for the Geng Hai was a particular challenge, Sun said.
“We decided to first develop, and then we’d standardize [the Geng Hai],” he said.
Standards are vital for insurers and financiers, and getting bank loans for the project was difficult, according to Shandong Ocean CEO Wei Yan. Among the banks backing the project is the Hengfeng Bank – a government-controlled lender – which has issued a CNY 100 million (USD 15 million, EU 13 million) loan.
“We think this project has a very good future potential,” Hua Guo Dong, the bank’s deputy head of lending in Yantai, told Shandong TV.
With the coronavirus fallout accelerating the ongoing trend of China moving to merge tourism with aquaculture, China’s seafood retail marketplace has also been drastically altered by the pandemic, as online commerce appears to be reshaping the traditional wholesale market sector in the wake of COVID-19.
One of the country’s leading online retailers, JD.com, has been changing the business model of China’s largest and oldest seafood trading center with a hook-up that will see the e-commerce firm distributing for vendors across China’s east coast, allowing them to directly reach consumers reluctant to visit the market in person.
JD.com began signing up vendors at the Zhoushan Aquatic Market – which claims to be Asia’s largest – for access to a direct delivery program, offering them access to the company’s delivery services to cities along the country’s east coast such as Shanghai, Ningbo, Nanjing, and Wenzhou. As part of its pitch, JD.com is promising on-time delivery to 100 cities within 24 hours. JD.com’s surge into the seafood trade is part of its battle with another online retailing specialist, Suning, which this month sought to secure seafood clients by assisting fishermen to stream videos from aboard their trawlers and to sell their products via Suning’s platform.
Also seeking to exploit Chinese consumer and travel trends driven by COVID lockdowns in traditional markets is the operator of China’s high-speed railways, which is freighting seafood from wholesalers in Dalian to customers in northerly cities like Harbin and Shenyang. Railway staff arrange for product to be put aboard the luggage compartments in trains traveling at speeds of over 200 kilometers an hour.
“Seafood deliveries that leave Dalian in the morning are in Harbin for lunchtime,” according to a press statement from the China Railway Shenyang Bureau Group Co. The high-speed railway network has long been promoted by Chinese policymakers as a tool for regional integration, as well as integration with neighboring states like Russia, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.
One coronavirus-related negative for domestic consumption of premium seafood in China has been the upending of the Chinese hotel trade. The Ba Na Qian Xi Hotel in Yantai has chosen to sell directly to consumers, who can choose to eat in or buy uncooked seafood for consumption at home. The hotel has even gone so far as to invest in its own trawlers to secure supply from local waters.
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