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Chinese Aquaculture Grows Alongside Global Appetite for Fish


China is both the world’s largest consumer of seafood and largest producer of farmed fish. As incomes rise and consumer demand for seafood grows, overexploitation in the fishing industry is on track to become a major global issue. In this article, we explore how China’s aquaculture industry can adapt to ensure a high value yet environmentally sustainable end product.

The global status of fish stock overexploitation is dire. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 52% of global fish stocks are fully exploited, 17% are overexploited, and 7% are depleted. This presents a thoroughly unsustainable model of seafood demand and consumption. 

Shifting global consumer tastes and environmental concerns are changing how we view the seafood supply chain. As a major consumer market, China drives a significant amount of demand for seafood. Species such as grouper, trout, and salmon that were once seen as luxurious are now considered affordable to China’s middle class consumers. However, the increased financial accessibility of these fish has consequently spurred unsustainable market demand. 

Market predictions show that by 2030, consumption of seafood in China will be greater than its domestic seafood production. This reality has urged policymakers to consider the following question: ‘how can China’s consumer base’s demand for seafood be matched by sustainable aquaculture practices?’

The State of Global Fish Stock

What is Aquaculture?

Aquaculture is a multifaceted term. Most often, aquaculture refers to the farming of fish, mollusks (oysters, clams, mussels), and crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) via methods by which aquatic habitats can be restored and wild fish or crustacean stocks can be replenished. Aquaculture is commonly mistaken with mariculture, farming done using saltwater, and algaculture, the farming of aquatic plants.

Fish farming is the most common type of aquaculture, and it is typically done in four specific ways. First, the cage system, by which fish are raised in enclosures while submerged in water, is relatively cost effective but is limited to freshwater. Second, a pond system in which fish are raised in man-made ponds is among the most common and easiest system, though it is dependent on an adjoining irrigation system. Next, the indoor tank system is when fish are raised in large tanks with continuously recycled water pumped through. Lastly, there are raceways, which are artificially created channels filled with rushing water that replicates fast moving rivers. This method particularly benefits certain species such as trout and tilapia.

In 2020, the global aquaculture market had an estimated value of US$180 billion. According to a study by market research firm Global Industry Analytics (GIA), the global aquaculture market is expected to grow to US$232.4 billion by 2026. Of this, China’s aquaculture market size is forecasted to reach US$167.3 billion during the same period, which roughly equates to 72% of total global aquaculture production value.

Why Is Aquaculture Important?

With the global population projected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050, annual food production will need to ramp up significantly from 8.4 billion tonnes to 13.4 billion tonnes. If practiced in an environmentally friendly way, aquaculture can provide healthy proteins and nutrients which are higher than most meat proteins. In particular, fish is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids that lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and offer a stable source of essential amino acids. Fish is also a healthier alternative to red meats, which leads to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer when frequently consumed, according to a study from the US National Institute of Health. This risk is lowered when red meat is excluded from the diet.

Seafood sales have seen a sharp drop as pandemic lockdown measures culminated in widespread restaurant closures. Consumers have since engaged more directly with fishermen, or fishmongers, to purchase and learn more about their food. This has resulted in a more informed and discerning consumer base, one which is now more aware of the correlation between overfishing and higher price points. Aquaculture can bridge this gap.

Freshwater fish are relatively cheap to raise, especially in ponds, and can thus provide affordable food for many low and middle income consumers. This has led to aquaculture in Asia, with its rising incomes, to become an economic boon. As of 2018, Asia was responsible for 89% of aquaculture production. In particular, carps are the most commonly farmed fish in both China and abroad. In 2017, the more than 38 species of carps made up a combined 25.5% of global aquaculture production, totaling 28 tonnes at a value of US$61 billion.

Global Aquaculture Production

Sources: BizVibe, The China Guys

Aquaculture in China

How Much Fish Does China Consume?

According to a 2020 report from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, by 2030, China will become an overconsumer of seafood and require anywhere between 6 to 18 tons of seafood to meet consumer demand. This forecast is supported by rapidly increasing levels of seafood consumption, with Chinese consumers consuming over 35 kg of seafood per person in 2020. 

Chinese consumers account for 45% of global seafood consumption. Out of 144 million tonnes of seafood consumed globally, Chinese consumers eat about 44 million tonnes. Yet, at appetite for fish grows, so too has Chinese aquaculture. In 2018, China’s estimated percentage of total global farmed aquatic products stood at around 60% for both freshwater and mariculture aquaculture. This is especially important as fish is increasingly a sought after protein among Chinese consumers. Pork remains the most popular source of protein in China; however the Asian Swine Flu and other factors have put a damper on pork consumption over recent years and jeopardized its long-term supply.

China’s Aquaculture Production

In 2018, China had 7.18 million hectares of aquaculture, of which 5.14 million hectares were freshwater and 2.04 million hectares in saltwater. Over half of the total Chinese aquaculture production comes from pond production, while reservoirs that support cage systems make up 28.8% and rivers account for 3.49%. This inland production occurs primarily within the valleys between the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers, which offers ample access to water sources.

China is the world’s largest aquaculture producer, with total aquaculture output in 2018 totaling 63.72 million tonnes. In terms of the geographic distribution of aquatic output throughout China, Shandong and Guangdong were the top two producing regions. When further segmented, Shandong and Fujian were the two largest saltwater aquaculture producers, while Hubei and Guangdong were the largest freshwater aquaculture producers.

Farming for High Value Fish

Carp and Tilapia dominate Chinese finfish aquaculture, representing 64% and 11% of global production, respectively. Carp has traditionally been raised for domestic consumption, while Tilapia has been exported as a low-cost alternative to whitefish such as haddock or cod. However, carp production is in decline as consumers with higher disposable incomes turn to other varieties, resulting in a rise in imported frozen, high value seafood such as salmon.

Changing consumer tastes will make high value fish such as salmon critical for Chinese aquaculture development. In December 2020, Nordic Aqua Partners A/S, a Norwegian company with a subsidiary in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, announced it will begin construction on China’s first land based salmon farm in 2021. Over the long term, this facility will aim to provide 40,000 tons of salmon annually for the Chinese market. This initiative has been widely accepted, particularly as a stipulation of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan was to reduce coastal water footprint by 120,000 hectares to offset coastal pollution, some of which was brought on by mariculture practices.

How Does Policy Affect Aquaculture Sustainability?

Carp, as stated earlier, is the most commonly farmed fish globally. It can be raised relatively cheaply in ponds and is a popular choice for more subsistence farmers who can quickly, and relatively cheaply, gain access to the fish. Culturally, carp also plays a role in many global culinary traditions, and therefore has steady demand.

But such methods of fish farming have come under increasing scrutiny from the Chinese government. Aquaculture in China falls under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA), and can be viewed negatively as MARA looks to protect existing nature reserves and drinking water supplies. This has resulted in a crackdown on illegal aquaculture pond fisheries and brought further scrutiny on the overuse of chemicals and antibodies, both of which result in pollution and the contamination of water supplies. This was the case of Dahu Aquaculture, a leading domestic producer of crab and freshwater fish, who realized losses of US$16.8 million in 2019 due to stricter environmental regulation.

Aquaculture restructuring and management was a key component of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs 2020 document “Key Points of Fisheries Management and Administration.” In the document, aquaculture ecological sustainability was a high priority, with the government committing to build 200 eco-friendly aquaculture sites. In addition, there was particular encouragement attached to employing the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS), by which water is cleaned and recycled back into the fish tanks, to cut down on fish waste and water pollution. 

The government is also being aided by private sector efforts. For example, the Guangdong Qiang Jing Group is looking to capitalize on shifting Chinese seafood consumption trends, and announced a US$37.5 million financing tranche for a sustainable bass farming and processing project in Zhuhai.  

Such enterprising cooperation will need to be repeated on a large scale to ensure aquaculture can sufficiently increase output to meet domestic demand on high value seafood products. However, to be truly effective, it will also require stringent regulation to ensure the sector’s environmental and ecological sustainability. In particular, this will likely manifest through heavier zoning regulation to ensure that enough space is designated for aquaculture, and that its requirements for water are met. While this will inevitably decrease China’s overall hectares of aquaculture – and potentially quantity by extension, it will also increase industry quality and output.

Looking Forward at Chinese Aquaculture

Wild caught seafood faces a precarious future. Its survival is entirely dependent on human agency, global awareness, and a change in consuming habits. China can become a leader in sustainably farmed seafood, but it will not be without growing pains. COVID saw a decrease in seafood consumption over fears of food security; however, this dip will pass. 

Over the long-term, given proper investment and regulation, aquaculture can become a global solution for food security and allow for the replenishing of wild fish stocks. Given its market size and stated commitment to a green economy, China can take the lead in nutritious, sustainable seafood for both domestic consumption and export. Should its actions align with its goals for green innovation and modernization as laid out within its Five-Year Plan, China’s aquaculture industry could have a bright long-term future ahead.

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