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December 9, 2021

A look at China's aquaculture sector


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China is the largest aquaculture-producing country in the world.

According to data in "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture in 2020", the latest report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), total global fish production in 2018 was 179 million tonnes — of which marine capture fisheries production was 84.4 million tonnes, freshwater capture fishery production was two million tonnes and aquaculture production is 82.1 million tonnes. This means aquaculture output accounted for 45.86% of the total output.

In the same year, China's total fish production was 35,570,900 tonnes, of which fishing production was only 8,633,100 tonnes, and aquaculture production totalled 26,937,800 tonnes, accounting for 75.73% of total production and 43.32% of the world's total farmed fish production.

For shrimp, China's total production in 2018 was 5.62 million tonnes, of which total aquaculture-based production was 4.09 million tonnes (1.41 million tonnes in seawater and 2.68 million tonnes in freshwater), while fishing harvest totalled 1.53 million tonnes (1.31 million tonnes in ocean fishing, 220,000 tonnes in freshwater fishing). Thus, aquaculture-based production accounted for 72.78% of total production.

So far, China is the only major fishery nation whose total amount of farmed fish and shrimp exceeds the total catch. Ironically, Chinese aquaculture companies hardly appear on the list of world-leading aquatic product suppliers.



China Water Group Co., Ltd., Shanghai Fisheries Group, Tianjin Ocean Fisheries Co., Ltd. and other companies focus on marine fishing. Restrictions caused by the state-owned enterprise system have hampered their development and growth.

Compared to other countries, China's aquaculture is mainly based on freshwater farming. The most produced fish are four major Chinese native fish, as well as crucian carp, carp and other Cypriniformes species not consumed in European and American countries. Although the farming of these fishes has a long history, commercial-scale breeding started only 20-30 years ago.

For species, China's output of grass carp, silver carp and bighead carp is relatively large. Production-wise, grass carp production is 5.5 million tonnes, silver carp is 3.85 million tonnes, bighead carp is 3.1 million tonnes and carp is 2.96 million tonnes. They are bred in various types of water, including ponds, lakes, reservoirs, rivers and even rice fields.

Chinese residents usually prefer fresh live fish and do not like deep-processed, refrigerated and frozen types. This preference also explains why Chinese aquaculture production is dominated by small and medium-sized farmers. Consequently, these farmers, who have limited funds and capabilities, do not become large producers.

Large-scale aquaculture enterprises in China are mainly exporters. However, their main export products are not those that China produces the most (such as grass carp, silver carp, bighead carp and carp), but whose output is low in the country (tilapia, eel and shrimps).

Moreover, a substantial quantity of these products is consumed domestically, hence resulting in limited export volumes.

Meanwhile, China's appetite for shrimp is growing fast. Several years back, China was still the world's main exporter of vannamei shrimp, but in recent years, due to the rapid growth of domestic consumption, the short supply of shrimp slashed exports to a negligible level, while also pushing imports. These trends catapulted China to become the world's largest shrimp importing country. Yet, as a result, this limited the development of export-oriented aquatic processing enterprises.

Based on statistics, the total amount of processed aquatic products (including fish, crustaceans, shellfish and algae) in China in 2020 was 20,907,900 tonnes, of which 16,792,700  tonnes were seawater processed products and only 4,115,100 tonnes were freshwater processed products.

The total amount of aquatic products used for processing was 24,771,600 tonnes, of which 19,529,800 tonnes were used for processing seawater products, and 5.2418 million tonnes were used for processing freshwater products.

As of end-2020, there are as many as 9,136 aquatic products processing enterprises nationwide, with an average annual processing capacity of only 2,287 tonnes.


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