Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

Fish-Farming: Past, Present, and Future in China

Li Si-fa


At present, about 60 species of fish, more than 10 crustaceans, more than 20 mollusks, and more than 10 species of seaweed are cultured in various culture systems. By the 1990s, Chinese aquaculture had become characterized by the expansion of the culture of high-value species (e.g., eels, prawns, turtles, crabs, and Chinese perch [mandarin fish] Siniperca chuatsi in freshwater and shrimp, croakers, and flounders in seawater).

Between 60 and 70% of the total production from Chinese freshwater aquaculture comes from fish-farming in ponds; culture in open waters (lakes, reservoirs, and channels) contributes most of the remaining output. The most commonly farmed species are native carps, mandarin fish, and Chinese mitten crab (Chinese river crab) Eriocheir sinensis. Exotic species such as Nile tilapia Oreochromis niloticus, rainbow trout Onchorhynchus mykiss, channel catfish Ictalurus punctatus, colossoma Colossoma spp., and largemouth bass Micropterus salmoides are also widely cultured. The principal species in marine aquaculture shifted from seaweeds (e.g., kelp Laminaria japonica, porphyra Porphyra spp.) in the 1960s to shellfish (e.g., mussels, clams Arca spp.) in the 1970s, scallops Argopecten spp. in the 1980s, tiger prawn Penaeus monodon in the 1980s and 1990s, and finfish in 1990s.

The challenges that aquaculture development faces in the new millennium are many; it is still a growing industry. The Chinese population is forecast to rise from the present 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion by 2026. This increase will further reduce the per capita share of land resources for food production, which steadily decreased from 0.19 ha in 1949 to 0.09 ha in 1995. These considerations, the rapid changes in population structure, and rising living standards have presented the Chinese with several challenges and opportunities to meet the rising demand for low- and high-quality animal products, particularly aquaproducts. Meanwhile, the decreasing status of wild marine fish stocks has forced Chinese fishery development policies to focus on expanding aquaculture as a key strategy for meeting changing national demand and consumer patterns.

Chinese aquaculture production is expected to reach 35 million mt by 2010 and contribute 70% of the total aquatic production. To achieve this level, three key issues must be carefully considered: the development of environmentally sustainable production systems, genetic improvement, and better disease control.

Chinese fish-farming goes back at least 2,500 years, and the science of aquaculture has long been prominent in the rich Chinese civilization. The initial knowledge and experience of raising common carp Cyprinus carpio and soft-shelled turtle Trionyx sinensis in ponds in the 5th century B.C. (the first literature on fish culture in the world) has been recorded by the China Society of Fisheries (Chinese Fisheries History Study Group 1986). Since those early days, the Chinese people have gained impressive experience of freshwater fish culture, which has not only established a firm basis for the development of current aquaculture in China but also influenced the development of aquaculture in other parts of the world.

Although China has this long history of freshwater fish culture, aquaculture began to develop rapidly only since the 1950s. The breakthrough in the artificial breeding of silver carp Hypophthalmichtys molitrix, bighead carp Aristichtys nobilis, and grass carp Ctenopharyogodon idellus, which was achieved between 1958 and 1960 changed the traditional practice of collecting wild fry from the rivers. Also in the 1960s, Chinese scientists summarized the experience of Chinese freshwater fish culture into “eight words”: water, seed, feed, density, polyculture, rotation, disease, and management. These two events signaled a new era in which Chinese freshwater fish culture shifted from an imperial technology into a science.

Chinese aquaculture has dramatically expanded since the 1980s, when the China’s open policy and economic reforms were adopted. By 1999, total fisheries output had reached 41 million mt, to which aquaculture contributed 58% (Fisheries Bureau 1976–2000). This output represented 72% of global aquaculture production.