by Mark J. Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation

Looking out the hotel window onto Hong Kong Harbor provides a view that spans centuries of international trade and history.  From the familiar Chinese junks with their fully battened sails to the latest in mega-container ships, the timelessness and the global reach facilitated by the ocean trade routes is fully represented.  Most recently, I was in Hong Kong for the 10th International Sustainable Seafood Summit, hosted by SeaWeb.  Following the summit, a much smaller group took a bus to mainland China for an aquaculture field trip.  On the bus were some of our funding colleagues, fish industry representatives, as well as four Chinese journalists, John Sackton of, Bob Tkacz of the Alaska Journal of Commerce, NGO representatives, and Nora Pouillon, a renowned chef, restaurateur (Restaurant Nora), and well-known advocate for sustainable seafood sourcing. 

As I wrote in my first post about the Hong Kong trip, China produces (and for the most part, consumes) about 30% of the world’s aquaculture products.  The Chinese have a lot of experience—aquaculture has been practiced in China for nearly 4,000 years.  Traditional aquaculture was largely conducted alongside rivers in flood plains where the fish farming was co-located with crops of one kind or another that could take advantage of the effluent from the fish to increase production. China is moving toward industrialization of aquaculture to meet its growing demand, while keeping some of its traditional aquaculture in place.  And innovation is key to ensuring that expanding aquaculture can be done in ways that are economically beneficial, environmentally sensitive, and socially appropriate.

Our first stop was Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, home to nearly 7 million people.  There, we visited the Huangsha Live Seafood Market that is known as the world’s largest wholesale live seafood market.  Tanks of lobster, grouper, and other animals vied for space with buyers, sellers, packers, and transporters—and thousands of Styrofoam coolers that are reused again and again as the product is moved from market to table by bicycle, truck, or other conveyance.  The streets are wet with water spilled from tanks and used to wash down storage areas, and with a variety of liquids one generally prefers not to dwell on.  The sources for the wild caught fish are global and most of the aquaculture product was from China or the rest of Asia.  The fish is kept as fresh as possible and this means that some of the items are seasonal – but generally it is reasonable to say you could find anything here, including species you’d never seen before.

Our second stop was Zhapo Bay near Maoming.  We took ancient water taxis out to a floating set of cage farms operated by the Yangjiang Cage Culture Association.  Five hundred clusters of pens dotted the harbor.  On each cluster was a small house where the fish farmer lived and the feed was stored.  Most of the clusters also had a large guard dog who patrolled the narrow walkways between the individual pens.  Our hosts showed us one of the operations and answered questions on their production of red drum, yellow croaker, pompano and grouper.  They even pulled away a top net and dipped in and gave us some live pompano for our dinner, carefully packed in a blue plastic bag and water inside a Styrofoam box. We dutifully took it with us to that evening’s restaurant and had it prepared along with other delicacies for our meal.

Our third stop was at Guolian Zhanjiang Group headquarters for a corporate presentation, lunch, and tour of its processing plant and quality control labs. We also visited Guolian’s shrimp hatchery and grow-out ponds.  Let’s just say this place was an ultra high-tech, industrial enterprise, focused on production for the global market, complete with its customized brood stock, integrated shrimp hatchery, ponds, feed production, processing, scientific research and trade partners.  We had to put on full coveralls, hats and masks, walk through disinfectant, and scrub down before we could tour the processing facility.  Inside was one jaw dropping aspect that was not high tech.  A football field sized room with rows upon rows of women in hazmat suits, sitting on little stools with their hands in baskets of ice where they were beheading, peeling and de-veining shrimp.  This part was not high tech, we were told, because no machine could do the work as fast or as well
Guolian’s award winning (including best practices from the Aquaculture Certification Council) facilities are one of the only two state-level Pacific white shrimp (prawn) breeding centers in China and is the only Chinese zero tariff enterprise exporting (five kinds of farm-raised shrimp products) to the USA.  Next time you sit down at any of the Darden restaurants (such as Red Lobster or Olive Garden) and order shrimp scampi, it is probably from Guolian, where it was grown, processed, and cooked.

On the field trip we saw that there are solutions to the challenge of scale in meeting protein and market needs.  The components of these operations have to be aligned to ensure their true viability:  Choosing the right species, scale technology and location for the environment; identifying the local socio-cultural needs (both food and labor supply), and assuring sustained economic benefits.  Meeting energy, water, and transportation needs must also factor into the decision making process about how these operations can be used to support food security efforts and promote local economic health.

At The Ocean Foundation, we have been looking at ways emerging technology developed by a diverse array of institutions and commercial interests can be deployed to provide consistent, sustainable economic and social benefits that also reduce pressure on wild species.  In New Orleans East, the local fishing industry engages 80% of the community.  Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and other factors have propelled an exciting multi-layered effort to produce fish, vegetables, and poultry for the local restaurant demand, provide economic security, and identify ways in which water quality and energy needs can be controlled to avoid harm from storm events.  In Baltimore, a similar project is in the research phase. But we will save those stories for another post.