Polluted waters threaten China’s lofty ocean-economy goals

Published on
April 6, 2015

China’s top planners and fishery officials want to increase the country’s earnings from the seas, even though the nation’s waterways and oceans are damaged perhaps beyond repair. Phrases like “marine economy,” “blue economy” and “ocean granary” have all become fashionable among the Chinese bureaucrats who oversee major fishing ports and processing hubs like Dalian and Qingdao.

There is a glaring conflict of ambitions here, however, given that the country’s own authorities say 81 percent of China’s coastal areas are “heavily polluted.” China’s State Oceanic Administration in its latest annual report said that more than half of 445 pollution discharge points around the coast “failed environmental requirements” in 2014 due to discharges of inorganic nitrogen and phosphates from fertilizers — as well as oil and chemicals from industry.

With the country more focused on curbing air pollution, China’s waters are being ruined by “environmental pollution, human destruction and over extraction of resources,” according to the Oceanic Administration’s report.

Yet the report doesn’t seem to have been read by attendees of the annual meeting this month of the Dalian Ocean and Fisheries Bureau, which has pledged to raise its haul from the marine economy by 6 percent this year to CNY 294 billion (USD 47.04; EUR 41.16 billion). That figure is a catch-all for fisheries and port activities as well as extraction of underwater resources.

Dalian has set a similar target for wild-caught fisheries, with volumes to rise 6 percent in 2015 to CNY 46 billion (USD 7.36; EUR 6.44 billion) in value terms under Dalian’s grand plan. The city similarly wants to make USD 10 billion (EUR 9.3 billion) from its “fishery economy” — catching and processing — in 2015. The seas will have to contribute more to Dalian’s economic growth, said vice mayor Lu Lin, who sees “sea ranching” (mariculture) and an increase in the city’s catch from the seas as central to making Dalian what he terms an “Ocean and Fishery Strong City.”

But are such ambitions realistic? More than half of the country’s rivers emptying into the sea are “seriously polluted” and the situation is getting worse: More than 17.6 million metric tons (MT) of pollutants were dumped into China’s maritime waters last year, up 5 percent on 2013, according to the State Oceanic Administration’s annual report. Pollution has caused a huge algal bloom for the past six summers on the Yellow Sea, which laps the shorelines of Dalian, Shandong and other key seafood producing regions, sucking oxygen out of the water.

“Fish species in the Yellow Sea are becoming extinct,” warned the China’s State Oceanic Administration report. More than half of China’s wetlands have disappeared. And it’s likely to get worse. This can only point to an increase in China’s dependency on imported seafood. And it will create even further impetus for key seafood processing hubs and port cities like Dalian, Qingdao and Shanghai to send vessels to far away waters to feed local markets and factories. 

There is data to suggest worsening pollution has already take a toll on the seafood production data for some of China’s key seafood producing regions — some of which also happen to be highly industrialised. The Oceanic administration report points out that water pollution has been worst in the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas in eastern and southern China. It’s not a coincidence that the weakest performance in 2014 seafood production was by the Pearl River delta region of Guangdong province — at 481,700 MT, down 4.4 percent on the previous year.

This is significant given that Guangdong contributes 11.5 percent of China’s total export volumes. Meanwhile it appears that as pollution damages seafood output in key producing provinces, freshwater production in particular has shifted to other regions. Last year the province of Hebei — never a seafood powerhouse — recorded seafood exports of 40,470 MT, worth USD 456 million. This represents an increase of 17.69 percent  and 63.28 percent, respectively. 

But new production regions will take some time to offer the kind of volumes that the big centers of aquaculture have provided. Neighbouring Guangdong province, in the region of Guangxi, has been rapidly expanding its tilapia and shrimp production but it’s clear that volumes remain low compared to neighboring Guangdong. More remote and underdeveloped than its wealthy, industrialised neighbouring province, Guangxi produced 106,000 MT of seafood in 2014, up a mere 1 percent year on year and only a quarter of the volumes produced by Guangdong.

Given the competing priorities of its governing class, China’s water pollution problem is unlikely to go away quickly. And as freshwater production shifts to areas of potential production, such as Hebei and Guangxi, the country will ultimately come to rely more on imports and on catches from its long-distance fleet to meet the kind of fisheries-driven economic expansion being planned by big cities like Dalian.

China is expected to be the biggest seafood import market in 2016, representing 38 percent of global seafood consumption by 2030, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. That projection looks indeed realistic, given the current state of the country’s waters.

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