Chinese processing industry to develop domestic market

Seafood being sold in a street market in Beijing Seafood being sold in a street market in Beijing

David Hayes looks at IUU export monitoring in China and the nation’s growing domestic market.

China and the United States have started preliminary discussions over the establishment of inspection and checking procedures to ensure that fish caught by Illegal Unreported Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities are not among China’s fishery exports to the US market. 

Sino-US fishery discussions are underway at a time when international concern is growing over the impact of China’s huge global fisheries trade as part of worldwide efforts to halt IUU fishing activities and protect both marine and freshwater fish resources.

Export monitoring 
China and the European Union have operated a joint IUU fishery export monitoring agreement since 2010. This could act as a model for a similar bilateral arrangement to be established by China and the United States. 

“We have been doing IUU fish stock checking with the EU for four years. First we check and then we give the results to the EU, and they check again. We check all the figures,” explained a source at the non-government China Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Alliance (CAPPMA). 

CAPPMA has been designated by the Ministry of Agriculture to check China’s fishery exporters’ documentation to verify the source of fishery products which are exported whole or processed to the EU market. 

 “The United States also is trying to start using IUU rules. The US government is discussing the issue with China’s Ministry of Agriculture,” the source said. “The ministry has asked us for our opinion and we replied to them several months ago. We are not sure if the US wants to use the same system as the EU or to create a totally new system. The matter is still at the comments collection stage.” 

CAPPMA is an authorised non-government organisation which is approved by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fishery Bureau. CAPPMA has about 1,000 members including private and state-run enterprises, and other organisations involved in the fishing industry. 

In addition to fish processing companies, members include local government fishery organisations, oceanography universities and research institutes including the Yellow Sea Research Institute and the Yangtze River Research Institute. 

“Our IUU inspections are focused on the EU export market and not the United States or Japan at present,” the source said. “The government funds the cost of checking every export document for the EU. We have staff in our Beijing office who contact all companies that want to export fishery products to the EU.  

“They file data electronically to us and we visit their factories. We ask all companies exporting to the EU to meet us twice a year; also, we carry out onsite research with experts from the EU every half year.” 

China’s fishery processing sector has developed into a large-scale industry during the past two decades, processing locally produced as well as imported fishery products for local sale and export. Around 400,000 people, many of them young females, are estimated to work in China’s fish processing industry which is concentrated around Qingdao in Shandong Province, Dalian in Liaoning Province and in Fujian Province.  

Rising labour costs and difficulties in procuring imported fishery materials for processing have caused problems for fish processing plants in recent years. 

“Three years ago there was a dark year for the fish processing industry as there was consolidation among some processors,” commented an European diplomat, based in China, who tracks China’s fishing industry. 

“Labour costs are rising by 20% a year. Factories lost money but kept going to keep their workers and their fish processing competencies.  

“Some factories process their own fish which they catch themselves, other factories find their own fish supplies and then sell their own processed products. Also, some Japanese companies rent processing plant space and produce their own processed seafood products.” 

CAPPMA has noticed the impact of rising labour costs on member companies recently which have affected smaller fishery processing enterprises in particular. 

“The cost of fish and labour costs have increased but the selling price of processed fish has kept the same, so some small scale processing companies have closed,” the CAPPMA source said. 

“The right of checking for IUU fish lies with CAPPMA; when we checked we found that some small processing companies have disappeared in Qingdao and Dalian.” 

CAPPMA’s members handle an estimated 60% to 70% of China’s total fishery exports. 

“The very large export companies like to join us, while supplying the domestic market there are many smaller processing companies,” the source said. “In China the consumption pattern is mainly fresh and live fish, but for export it’s processed fish.” 

Fishery products that are processed include farmed fish and imported species including cod, pollack, tuna, salmon and crabs. 

“These are imported as China does not have that much fish but these species are plentiful in Alaska, Russia, South America and the Pacific,” the source said. 

“There are Chinese fishing boats in the Pacific but in the Russia and Alaska it’s other countries’ boats which are operating.” 

Russia is China’s major supplier of fishery products followed by the United States. Both countries are reported to have increased the volume of fishery goods exported to China in weight and value last year. 

Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) member countries are now the third largest source of China’s fishery imports. 

China is the world’s biggest producer, consumer, processor and exporter of fishery products, according to Ministry of Agriculture Fishery Bureau figures. 

Output and consumption 
China produces more than one third of the world’s total fishery supplies and accounts for more than 60% of global aquaculture output. In 2012 China’s fisheries output reached about 40 million metric tons (mt), equivalent to a fourfold increase in production over the two previous decades. 

According to China’s National Statistics Bureau, per capita consumption of fishery products was 14.6 kg among the urban population and 5.4 kg for rural inhabitants in 2011. These figures are expected to rise dramatically in less than a decade as household incomes increase and fishery imports increase to meet a shortfall in domestic production. 

According to forecasts prepared by the FAO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2013 in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, China will consume some 63 million mt of fishery products in 2022, a 26% increase over current figures. 

Aquaculture production is forecasted to rise 37% to around 53 million mt in 2022, accounting for almost two thirds of global output, although the rate of growth will be half that in the last decade due to water and land constraints. 

Capture fisheries output, however, will fall by 3% according to forecasts, due to government efforts to curb IUU fishing and encourage greater efficiency in the capture fisheries sector. 

The FAO/OECD forecasts also project that China’s fishery imports for human consumption will grow to 4.4 million mt by 2022, rising by 2.1% annually and with the share of imports for domestic consumption rising from 7% to 8%. 

Meanwhile, the future development of China’s fish processing industry recently has become a topic for discussion owing to rising labour and fishery materials costs. 

“That’s the big topic now – the export market is limited, overseas demand is not growing; so where to find the new market?” the CAPPMA source asked. “Other problems are the fishery materials cost; also, labour costs have increased a lot, so how can processors improve their selling prices?” 

Domestic market
With fishery export growth prospects limited at present, the future development of China’s fish processing industry appears to lie in supplying the nation’s growing domestic market. 

Rising family incomes and growing consumer demand for high quality oven-ready food is likely to create a growing domestic market for processed food as younger working families look for fast, modern, time saving home dining solutions. 

“The most likely direction is more processed fish for China’s domestic market such as frozen packs ready for cooking. I don’t think Chinese people will like canned fish, and anyway, canned tuna is expensive in China,” the source said. 

“People buy fresh and live fish to cook at home. In supermarkets there is an area for live fish, they must sell both fresh and live fish,” the source said. “The live fish are freshwater fish from fish farms, the fresh fish are marine fish and some fish from fish farms.” 

Although food retailing is undergoing rapid changes in China, with traditional markets and corner shops being replaced by supermarkets and modern convenience stores, many consumers still prefer live or fresh fish. 

“In China, with the same species, live fish are more expensive than fresh fish; but live fish are still very cheap such as common species such as the many species of carp,” the source said. “A live carp weighing about 1kg costs about RMB 20 (US$3.20). People ask the shop to prepare the fish for them or take it home alive.” 

Fish is cheaper than meat in China, which accounts for its popularity. Each province boasts different recipes to cook fish, often with the addition of strong spices to fish soups, stir fried dishes and others. 

“In China people quick fry a small amount of meat with vegetables, but with fish they buy a whole fish and then eat it the whole day,” the source said. 

“Fish is popular as mothers think they are nutritious and good for their children; also, people think fish are delicious. Consumption of fish is increasing in China as fish are healthy in peoples’ minds and consumers have more money, so price is not a problem.”  

Marine fish are more popular in China’s coastal regions while freshwater fish are more popular inland.  

Marine fish are more expensive than freshwater fish. Shellfish, shrimp and wild caught fish are popular to eat during festivals and traditional holidays when more higher priced seafood products are eaten. 

Meanwhile, a major international research project has recently highlighted the pressure that China’s fast growing aquaculture industry is putting on world fishery supplies due to its reliance on fishmeal made from wild capture fish. 

In a new paper published in the journal Science, a research team led by Stanford University of the United States’ Centre on Food Security and the Environment identify an opportunity for China’s aquaculture industry to reduce its enormous impact on wild fisheries by using discarded waste from the nation’s fish processing industry. 

The paper’s lead authors, Ling Cao and Professor Rosamond Naylor from Stanford, outline an opportunity for positive change through recycling waste by-products from fishery processing plants in major processing centres to produce fishmeal. 

Currently the processing waste, which can account for 30% to 70% of the overall volume of fishery material processed, is often discarded or discarded into coastal waters near the processing plants. 

The study’s researchers calculate that the discarded processing waste could replace from half to two thirds of the current volume of fishmeal used by China’s fish farmers, replacing much of the wild fish currently used in fish feed. 

Quality and food safety are two potential barriers to replacing wild-caught fish with fish processing waste, but the paper’s authors say these can be overcome through adding plant-based protein sources to the fishmeal, while contamination and disease can be addressed through research and tight regulation. 

“This is a critical juncture for China,” lead author Ling Cao said. “If the country makes proactive reforms to its aquaculture sector, like using fish processing wastes instead of wild fish, and generally reducing the amount of fishmeal in aquafeeds, it can greatly improve the sustainability of the industry. If not, the consequences for the entire global seafood supply chain are going to be really serious.” 

Aquaculture systems in China are intensifying to meet growing domestic demand for fishery products as fish farmers try to obtain higher output from scarce land, water and coastal zone resources.  

Fish farming consequently is in transition from relying on traditional low input multitrophic systems to using monoculture or polyculture systems focused on high value species that rely on commercial fish feed.  

Fishing is poorly regulated in China’s coastal waters and large volumes of “trash fish” are caught that end up in animal feed including fishmeal fed to farm-raised fish. 

Currently over 100 freshwater and more than 60 marine fish species are farmed in China. 

Carp, tilapia and penaied shrimp are the three largest species accounting for over half of China’s aquaculture output in tonnage terms. 

In 2012 China produced over 90% of the world’s carp, 50% of global penaied shrimp and 40% of the world’s tilapia output. 

“Trash fish are largely unrecorded in world fishery statistics and its use is putting species and ecosystems at risk,” commented contributing author, Duncan Leadbitter, Honorary Research Fellow at University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security. 

“The scale of China’s aquaculture production has been known for some time, but the demands on wild harvest fish as a source of feed have not been explored. 

“This study begins the process of encouraging closer scrutiny of the implications of China’s growing demands for seafood and how it can be encouraged to become a key player in the push for sustainability.” 

In addition to members from Stanford University, the study’s international team also included researchers from Australia’s University of Wollongong, Scotland’s University of Stirling, Leiden University in the Netherlands, Stockholm University, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Shanghai Ocean University. 



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