In early September, the annual International Seafood Summit, traditionally held in Europe and North America since 2003, chose Hong Kong as its first Asian host venue for its 10th anniversary celebrations.
This annual summit is an event that professes to bring together global representatives from the seafood industry and conservationists for in-depth discussions, presentations and networking around the issue of sustainable seafood.
Sustainably fisheries has been a global issue for decades due to the well-documented and universal decline of marine fish stocks. When once only Greenpeace seemed to be taking action, now the market is beginning to perceive the benefits of conservation, with international fisheries certification and seafood eco-labeling together with strict quota systems on vulnerable species in force around the world.
According to Zhao Xingwu, Director of the Bureau of Fisheries from China’s Ministry of Agriculture, China exported 3.91 million tons of seafood in 2011, representing more than 25 percent of the world’s total aquaculture production and US$10.2 billion in revenue.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), China contributed 35% of the world’s seafood (mostly farmed) and consumed 34% of the global supply (mainly wild) in 2010. Compared to other large seafood exporters, China has been criticized for a lack of action over sustainability.
“The holding of this year’s Seafood Summit in Hong Kong is probably a positive sign for the Chinese market,” said Fan Xubing, a Beijing-based aquaculture expert and the Managing Director for Beijing Seabridge Marketing and Consulting Co. Ltd.
“It should arouse the domestic shareholders’ attention to get in line with international standards.”
Thomas Huxley, the then president of Britain’s Royal Society claimed in his 1883 inaugural address to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London that overfishing or “permanent exhaustion” was scientifically impossible, and stated that probably “all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible.” Even as he spoke, however, industrial whaling and fishing was already threatening previously abundant species.
In 1970s, this depletion reached a tipping point, as fishermen across the world started to notice a significant fall in wild ocean fish stocks, and overfishing was suddenly an unpleasant reality, with species such as the bluefin tuna, wild salmon and Atlantic cod even facing extinction.
According to a CBC News report, about 300,000 tonnes of Atlantic cod (cadus morhua) were landed annually until the 1960s, when advances in technology enabled factory trawlers to take larger catches. By 1968, catches peaked at 800,000 tonnes before a gradual decline set in. In 2007, offshore cod stocks had fallen to one percent of their 1977 volume.
Consequently, the Atlantic cod, once one of the most common sea fish on European and American dining tables, is now labeled VU (vulnerable) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The Chinese equivalent of the Atlantic cod is the large yellow croaker (Larimichthys crocea), a common Pacific fish used widely in both Chinese cuisine and traditional Chinese medicine, and once one of the four most important fish species in coastal China along with hairtail, pomfret and squid.
The wild population of yellow croaker has collapsed since the 1970s, and the species is now listed as “threatened” by the IUCN. Originally concentrated in coastal East Asia, from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea, especially around Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, the annual catch in China peaked at around 100,000 tons in the 1970s. However, since the population crashed due to overfishing, wild yellow croaker is almost unseen in modern Chinese wet markets, with its farmed equivalent now dominating.
Yvonne Sadowy, professor with the Swire Institute of Marine Science from the University of Hong Kong, points out that China is also the leading market for luxury and rare seafood products, particularly shark’s fin, yellow croaker, humphead wrasse, sea horse and live reef fish. “Luxury markets in particular can drive overfishing and threaten a species,” Sadowy told our reporter. “People with money can push species to extinction.”
Wild large yellow croaker can fetch as much as US$600 per kilogram on the open market, compared to US$6 in the 1980s and 1990s. News reports indicate that super large yellow croaker, due to its scarcity, can be sold at extremely high prices. Early this year, a super large yellow croaker some 2 meters in length was caught by fishermen in Fujian Province and sold for 3 million yuan (US$475,000). Critics claim that such remarkable and vulnerable fish should be beyond consideration as a foodstuff, yet the market seems to disagree.
Today, the vast majority of yellow croaker on the Chinese market comes from fish farms, in themselves a controversial “solution” to unsustainable wild fisheries. While China may have been one of the world’s earliest pioneers in both marine and freshwater aquaculture, it has fallen behind since the 19th century. Nevertheless, according to the FAO, China is the only country in the world which produces more farmed than wild fish.
Being the top aquaculture producer in the world, total aquaculture production in China amounts to 54 million tons, however, intensive farming has destroyed wild fish habitats, led to major problems with disease and has destabilized the quality assurance of farmed fish. There is also no evidence that more widespread fish farming reduces overfishing – wild fish are still caught in immense quantities simply to stock fish farms. In her address to the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong, Yvonne Sadowy bluntly told delegates that, in her opinion, “mariculture cannot solve the problem of overfishing.”
Since the 1990s, the Chinese government put forward a management objective of “zero catch growth” in coastal marine fisheries and began to impose a “hot season” moratorium in the Yellow, East China and South China Sea.
In the early 2000s, a three-month moratorium was also imposed in some major inland rivers and lakes following the extinction of many freshwater fish and mammals including the Yangtze River dolphin, or the white porpoise. The rare finless porpoise, once abundant in China’s rivers, is now also facing extinction (see NewsChina July 2012 issue: Fished Out).
Furthermore, according to Zhao Xingwu, China has adopted methods including the control of total vessel numbers and limits on the total horsepower of its motorized marine fishing fleet, relocating fishermen away from depleted marine fisheries, and also attempting to introduce captive-bred vulnerable species into the wild.
By the end of 2004, the government had invested nearly US$100 million, scrapped nearly 8000 vessels and relocating over 40,000 fishermen, with further cuts planned for the future.
Targets are one thing, but realizing them, especially against market forces, are another. “Fisheries [in China] are still overexploited,” said Fan Xubing. “As far as I know, the national catch remains steady, with species ratios variable. Now, cheaper fish are more commonly landed, while the catch of formerly common marine fish such as tailfish and yellow croaker declines along with their stocks.”
Few of China’s well-heeled elites are interested in trading down from expensive wild-caught seafood to more common farmed varieties. A few in-roads have been made – most notably a public information campaign fronted by former basketball star Yao Ming which had a significant impact on the market for one of China’s most controversial delicacies. The State Council, China’s cabinet, followed the campaign with a directive banning the serving of shark’s fin at State banquets.
However, sales of other endangered species continue to boom. The humphead wrasse, which first appeared on the IUCN list in 1996 and was listed as “endangered” in 2004, is still available on the market in parts of China, selling for as much as US$ 200 per kilogram.
Zhao Xingwu told our reporter that so far, the government has not yet set limits on catches, making other regulations aimed at reining in overfishing largely ineffectual.
Certificates or Quotas?
While the EU, United States, Canada, New Zealand have actively sought out international certification to assure consumers of the sustainability of their fish stocks, China’s seafood and aquaculture market however has largely ignored international standards. Henry Demone, CEO of High Liner Foods addressed to the reporter, “it is tough to get US and European consumers engaged in consuming certified sustainable seafood. It might be even harder to get the Chinese involved.”
Han Han, Program Manager from Chinese Tilapia Aquaculture Improvement Project (AIP) under Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Foundation (SFPF) believes that China’s fisheries should not only join existing international frameworks, but also actively take part in designing a certification system suitable for its own needs.
“Existing criteria were developed mostly on very industrialized models,” Han told NewsChina. “In Asia, the majority of farms are small to medium sized, and they were operated in very different way.”
Froukje Kruijssen from World Fish Center told our reporter that current certification systems are confusing and that, so far, as no one standard can be applied in all countries, fisheries need to pay multiple agencies for overlapping certification.
Quotas have proven more effective in reducing the depletion of fish stocks, but only when rigorously enforced. The US, Canada and the UK have enacted fishing catch quotas for different fish species applicable to individual fishermen, quotas adjusted to extensive marine survey data of fish stocks.
In Fan Xubing’s opinion, China urgently needs a quota system. “It normally takes ten to 15 years for a depleted fish species to recover its population. Now, without quotas, fishermen continue with business as usual.”
Cui He believes that a quota system applied to China would be too damaging for individual fishermen. “If a quota system were adopted, the dumping of surplus catches would become commonplace, destroy marine ecology in the long run,” he told our reporter. Indeed, EU quotas have recently been blamed for the wholesale dumping of dead fish which don’t correspond to restrictions on size or gender by European fishing boats, a practice which also rapidly depletes fish stocks.
With little action being taken at the center, individual provinces, particularly those dependent on their maritime economies, have experimented with their own solutions to overfishing. Shandong province, for example, injected over 300 million yuan (US$48m) in 2012 releasing captive-bred fry in the Bohai Bay region to replenish stocks.
The Hong Kong government has also issued a ban on trawling in Hong Kong waters to restore the area’s badly-eroded seabed and marine resources, as well as officially registering all boats engaged in commercial fishing in the territory.
"The trawling ban is significant, but it comes too late. There was no control of boats or fishermen for decades,” Yvonne Sadowy told NewsChina: “If you manage stocks well, taking just enough, the population will still recover, and your catch can even be improved. As things stand, the marine ecosystem [in Hong Kong] will take at least a decade to recover."