With land scarce, China eyes growth in marine aquaculture

China’s leading seafood region is setting a blueprint to ramp up production by 2020 by drastically expanding the region’s construction of sea-borne aquaculture while also building artificial reefs. China has struggled to increase output from ocean aquaculture at the same pace freshwater aquaculture, but pressure has increased as land and cheap labor become scarce. 

A blueprint titled Sea Granary 2020, published by the Ocean and Marine Bureau, has identified 30 eco-fishery projects and a 30,000-hectare area of artificial reefs. This shows that mariculture — or sea ranching as it’s often termed in Chinese — is increasingly being pushed as a priority for growth in China’s seafood output.

The plan also explicitly commits Shandong to increasing its catch of fish from the high seas: “Control coastal fishing while building the offshore, long-distance fishery sector” it states. Meanwhile, the province says it will use the increased seafood production volume to cultivate 100 companies in 30 seafood processing parks in order to build up the province’s processing industry to a very ambitious CNY 200 billion (USD 31.9 billion; EUR 27.9 billion) in value by 2020. The government plan also calls for an expansion of the “leisure seafood” sector, with fishing on the sea and sightseeing and holidaymaking as well as dining.

The Shandong government says it’ll use “central government subsidies” to help fund its grand plans. Even in a slowing economy one of the few areas of spending largely untouched is agricultural subsidies. Fisheries accounts for about a third of a USD 250 billion (EUR 218 billion) paid out to farm and rural income supports in 2014 — a figure growing by about 10 percent a year over the past decade.

China’s seafood production and processing scene is becoming more concentrated around a smaller number of provinces and cities. Shandong on the east coast, home to the key processing hubs of Qingdao and Yantai, accounts for 14.52 percent of Chinese seafood output, according to the China Fisheries Yearbook, while the southern provinces of Guangdong (13.61 percent) and Fujian (10.77 percent) are in second and third place, respectively.

Much depends on the potential for increased output of aquaculture, which has grown to account for almost half of China’s overall seafood output. When combining mariculture and wild catch, China’s total marine product went from 22.04 million metric tons (MT) in 2000 to 29.08 million MT in 2011, which represents growth of only 2.5 percent a year. But in the same timeframe, freshwater output went from 15.02 million MT to 26.9 million MT, which represents growth of 5.46 percent a year.

Mariculture production — which accounts for a small percentage of overall marine (including wild catch) output — grew at 30 percent year on year in 2012, twice the rate of growth of freshwater aquaculture, according to the most recent government data on the subject. This is remarkable given overall seafood output in China has slowed from the double-digit annual growth in volumes seen a decade ago. From January to June 2014 the national aquatic output of 26.16 million MT was up 3.4 percent on the same period in 2013, according to data collected by the ministry of agriculture from the country’s 20 top producing provinces. A tightening of China’s land supply, in part due to pollution as well as industrial and real estate development, means production through mariculture is likely to increase.

There’s also slower growth in the amount of land available for aquaculture. China in the first half of this year had 7.62 million hectares being used for aquaculture, up 3.81 percent over the previous year; of that figure 6.32 million hectares were used in freshwater aquaculture production. Year-on-year growth in land area going to aquaculture use was in excess of 8 percent a decade ago.

Meanwhile, sea-based aquaculture accounted for 1.59 million hectares. Right now 30 percent of the nation’s aquatic output goes to (domestic) consumption while 33 percent is used in processing. But while both are growing at an average 5 percent a year and higher, there is clearly going to be a widening gap between demand and supply, since annual growth in output of aquatic goods is not keeping pace (with demand from domestic consumers and processors) as out-of-home consumption of seafood in China is growing on average 10 percent per year.

With all of these drivers of demand, it’s vital that China find new sources of production, especially as aquaculture production is increasingly being diverted to the processing sector. As a percentage of processed products in 2003 freshwater accounted for 0.89 million tons but this had risen to 4.27 million tons in 2010 — that’s growth of 25 percent a year but it’s not clear that this is sustainable.

China’s ability to find new sources of production will have a vital impact on global seafood supply and prices. The import volume of 4.25 million MT contrasted with exports of 3.91 million MT as proof that the Chinese demand for imports for domestic consumption is rising fast and ultimately competing with supply for processing. Products like cod were once not associated with domestic consumption but this is changing.

Not surprisingly, China’s government-driven expansion and research in mariculture is being closely watched by researchers in Europe. China has leapfrogged Europe in the area of polyculture — simultaneously cultivating multiple species of fish, seaweed and shellfish in giant tracts of coast — according to Jean Dhont, secretary of the ASEM Aquaculture Platform, an EU-funded research program promoting EU-Asia cooperation in aquaculture. China sees polyculture as a way of upping seafood output while also easing severe marine problems like coastal eutrophication, said Dhont.


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