Fish & Fisheries

Is China’s Coastal Aquaculture Production a House of Cards?

September 17, 2013

Shrimp cocktail. Photo: © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

More than a dozen species are now aqua-farmed on a large scale, but Penaeid shrimp—like the ones on a shrimp cocktail platter—are the largest aquaculture exports by value.

And no country exports more shrimp than China. Yet how sustainable is shrimp aquaculture production in China?

China produces approximately 70% of the world’s aquaculture shrimp, and its major shrimp-producing areas include the Yellow River Delta and the Pearl River Delta.

A new study using Synthetic Aperture Radar finds that aquaculture areas in China’s Yellow River Delta subsided approximately 1 meter (3.28 feet) between 2007 and 2011. This drop in the level of the land is concentrated around aquaculture facilities that extract groundwater.

By one estimate, 1 billion m3 of water in the Yellow River Delta was extracted in 2001—or enough water to supply 20 million people for a year at the minimum needed for human health and economic development.

As the delta areas subside, coastal flooding becomes more likely with substantial consequences for China’s delta aquaculture facilities and production.

But it is not just subsidence of the land, over-pumping of groundwater, and coastal flooding that could imperil China’s aquaculture production. Like other shrimp-producing countries, high antibiotic use and water pollution are ongoing challenges in China.

If shrimp production declines in China, it is likely to increase in the other top-shrimp producing countries of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. This could have consequences for the remaining mangroves in Southeast Asia given that shrimp aquaculture has historically been the primary cause of the loss of mangroves in the region.

Weirdly, the fate of Chinese shrimp production and the mangroves in Southeast Asia may be entwined.

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