Nov 06, 2012 07:10 PM

Safety Nets for Fishing Nets


(Beijing) -- There's a gulf between the fish catches of thirty years ago and today around the world. But in places like the Bohai Sea, the Zhoushan Islands and the Beibu Gulf, a fishing industry reeling in lighter and lighter nets has yet to reach for sustainable production labeling.

It isn't just the dearth of wild caught fish that has lead to environmental issues, but a massive boom in farmed fish. As the world's largest fish consumer and producer, the country accounts for roughly 60 percent of the world's total fish production.

Eco-labeling programs to certify the environmental or life cycle production of fish stocks have been in place in several countries for decades. While non-profit industry organizations are attempting to improve standards in China's cultured and wild caught fish supply, the use of third-party inspection is being turned away by fish producers over additional costs.

Multi-criteria systems like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) scheme or Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification isn't taking hold. At the same time, China lacks mandatory governmental labeling schemes. Started by non-governmental organizations and companies in other countries, the standards were a response to rapidly decreasing natural fish stocks as a result of overfishing. Products with MSC or BAP labels can easily be found in supermarkets in the United States and the United Kingdom.

According to the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012, the annual report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), nearly 30 percent of all fish species have reached severely overfished levels. The organization is calling for stricter policies to manage the recovery of the world's fish supply.

But the introduction of eco-labeling is facing obstacles in China on many fronts.

Cloistered with Oysters

China's enormous explosion in seafood consumption and unregulated fishing activities have converged to make for vastly depleted stocks and raised questions over the long-term viability of the industry. Laizhou Bay off Shandong Province, the Bohai Bay near Tianjin and the Liaodong Gulf were once called China's top three "gold" fisheries in the 1980s, known for producing massive catches.

In the 1950s, the coastline of Zhejiang Province teemed with so many large yellow croakers that the local government encouraged residents to purchase the fish out of a "patriotic promotional campaign" given the lack of proper refrigeration facilities. Now, there is hardly any trace of croakers in China.

Bohai Bay was once the spawning grounds for a huge variety of fish species living in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea. But fishermen have long complained that the areas are no longer producing the yields they were once netting.

Wang Shicheng, former deputy director of the Shandong Marine and Fishery Bureau, said that nearly two-thirds of marine life has died out in the Laizhou Bay, and for the remaining species, the population continues to decrease at an exponential speed. Wang said that the prawn yield in the 1970s in Laizhou Bay was typically 16,000 tons. But since then, the average catch is now at around 800 tons.

Along the Yangtze River, the swordfish is at the edge of extinction while the reeves shad and blowfish have not been seen for years. The most popularly consumed fish, namely black carp, grass carp, silver carp and bighead carp, have seen a significant drop in natural populations.

The accreditation has existed in other countries for around twenty years, and customers have learned to seek out seafood products from sustainable fisheries and aquaculture largely based on a growing ecological consciousness.

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