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China’s unsustainable fish farms

Fish for sale in Hong Kong Fish for sale in Hong Kong Lewis Tse Pui Lung
23 Jan
China’s fish farms provide three-quarters of the country’s fish, but the industry’s reliance on fishmeal from wild-caught fish is unsustainable

China produces one-third of the world’s fish supply, a figure that has tripled in the last 20 years. However, only a quarter of China’s fish come from the oceans, with most being caught in the country’s fish farms. But aquaculture relies on fishmeal from ocean-caught fish and it’s a situation that is unsustainable, according to new research.

‘The main problem as we see it is the regulation of the fisheries that are linked to providing feed for the aquaculture sector,’ says Max Troell, an ecologist at the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics (BIEE) in Sweden.

‘It’s a very diverse industry, but this high demand puts pressure on various fisheries. There are a lot of mixed fisheries that are providing feed to China’s aquaculture industry,’ he adds. The BIEE’s research suggests that China’s aquaculture industry could change global seafood availability.

‘It’s not possible to say when the fisheries might be exhausted,’ says Troell. ‘Some of the fishing targets areas where fish stock are unknown.’ What is known is that areas with established stocks are being overfished. China’s fish farms still produce more fish than are taken from the oceans.

China’s aquaculture industry could change global seafood availability

‘There’s a need to strengthen the governance of the fisheries sector,’ says Troell. ‘That means regulation and enforcement.’ Developing regulations could be difficult for China. ‘A country like China has so many farms and farmers that the process of how you make regulations is a challenge,’ adds Troell.

China’s government has a policy document committed to sustainable fishing. For the moment little practical enforcement is being done, but Troell is optimistic. ‘In China, you have the political structure that makes it easier for the enforcement of regulation,’ he says. Once the Chinese government acts, it acts decisively.

Recycling waste products might improve the industry’s sustainability. Although there are health and quality issues, the BIEE’s research suggests 30 to 70 per cent of incoming fish volume currently discarded could be reused.

‘Another unaddressed issue is that at the moment ocean-caught fish species that can be consumed by humans are being used for fish meal,’ says Troell. Economics favours using these fish to feed farm animals, but this may not be the wisest way to use the resource, Troell says.

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