11 Sep 2020
China faces serious challenges to meet its future seafood demand. What will China do to solve this problem and what might be global consequences of Chinese actions?
China is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and trader of seafood products. Through unpacking this statement, it becomes clear that with increasing economic prosperity and urbanization, the Chinese appetite for seafood is rapidly growing. Although Chinese domestic seafood production is large and growing, it may not be able to keep up with increasing demand. The uncertainty with respect to scope for domestic growth is however large. This could imply that by 2030 the country may consume more than it can produce domestically – resulting in a shortage of up to 30 percent. Considering China’s dominant role, it is of global interest to understand future Chinese choices regarding what seafood to eat and how and where to source it.
GEDB’s Beatrice Crona, Emmy Wassénius, and Max Troell, alongside colleagues from Australia, China, Canada, Malaysia, Sweden, and the United States, published a transdisciplinary approach paper in One Earth journal examining China’s future seafood production and consumption. The authors argue that Chinese have several strategies they could pursue to close the seafood gap in 2030.
Strategy 1: Increase imports
China can increase seafood imports or reduce re-exports. Presently, the country’s role in global seafood trade is primarily as a value-adding hub, with a large portion of the seafood imported passing through the country via various value-adding processes. China can move from today’s situation of being a hub where seafood passes through to other markets, to being the end destination.
Strategy 2: Increase catches from distant waters
China is already estimated to account for the largest share of catches in the high seas. Fishing in distant waters has previously been a strategy pursued to expand domestic catches, indicating that it could become important again. Plans to modernize the fleet could improve profitability and reduce energy use and negative climate impact. However, the increased efficiency could also create or enhance overcapacity and threaten already dwindling fish stocks. This strategy might also impact Chinese efforts to appear more responsible as a global actor worthy of international leadership.
Strategy 3: Invest in overseas production
The Chinese flagship foreign direct investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative, provides the overarching framework for this strategy, and some recent acquisitions hint at the feasibility of this strategy. Large-scale overseas investments in seafood production could arguably offer employment and development opportunities in receiving nations, but at what cost. Will Chinese investors be willing to sustainably manage foreign fisheries in which they operate, mitigating environmental and social impacts?
Finally, it is essential to remember that China is not alone. As the global population increases, seafood resources are experiencing ever-growing pressure. Many other countries are also trying to secure access to this vital food source. But given its size, China’s actions and choices matter for the rest of the world.
Crona, B., E. Wassénius, M. Troell, K. Barclay, T. Mallory, M. Fabinyi, W. Zhang, V. W. Y. Lam, L. Cao, P. J. G. Henriksson, and H. Eriksson. 2020. China at a Crossroads: An Analysis of China's Changing Seafood Production and Consumption. One Earth 3(1): 32-44