Robert Y. ENG

Fishing boats in Shanghai. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Due to rapid growth and expansion in the twentieth century, China’s fishing industry is the largest in the world. This growth, however, has caused widespread overfishing and endangered species, forcing the Chinese government to set up methods to control industry practices and protect the waters from pollution.

China is the world’s largest fish producer, accounting for approximately one-third of world production. Since 1989, the country’s fishing industry has grown dramatically, contributing $30 billion to the economy in 2002, about 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The rapid growth of China’s fish culture has not only added to the country’s food supply, it has also created employment and income. The industry is divided into four sectors: marine fishing, mariculture, freshwater fishing, and freshwater culture.

China’s Traditional Fishing Industry

Some form of aquaculture—the raising of aquatic animals and plants—has been practiced in China for over 3,000 years. The earliest known manual on fish farming was written around 475 BCE and is attributed to a wealthy landowner by the name of Fan Li. According to legend, Prince Wei of Qi asked Fan Li how he became so wealthy. Fan replied: “There are five ways to make a fortune, and the most important one is pisciculture.” He advised the emperor to make the country rich by raising fish, particularly carp because they grow quickly and do not eat their young.

Polyculture (the raising of multiple fish species) was introduced in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) when the consumption of common carp was forbidden because its name, li, had the same sound as the surname of the imperial family. Fish farmers then began to grow several species of fish together in ponds. Up to nine different fish species (primarily herbivores), each feeding on different resources, were spawned in the balanced ecosystems of artificial fishponds. This practice was less labor intensive, less polluting, and more efficient in the conversion of biological energy than monocultural systems that relied on carnivorous fish species.

Integrated fish farming was developed in the Pearl River delta in South China around 1400 CE. This method created a complex dike-pond ecosystem that utilized a variety of resources and reduced organic pollution. For example, livestock and poultry manure made good fertilizers for fish farming. Crops, such as mulberry, were grown on the dike banks. Silkworms were raised on the mulberry, and the silkworm pupae were used as fish feed. The worm feces and wastewater from silk processing could be used as pond fertilizers, and the pond silt could be used as fertilizer for the plants on the dikes or for fodder crops, which could then be used to feed livestock, poultry, and fish.

The practice of fish farming in rice paddies, first documented in the third century, likely arose when rice farmers noticed that monsoon floods would wash wild fish into the ponds that had been dug in the rice fields for water storage and irrigation. The realization that two crops could be cultivated at the same time on the same plot of land inspired farmers to learn how to grow fish in captivity. Later, farmers learned to cultivate those species of fish that would help control rice weeds and harmful insects as well as provide fertilizer for rice fields.

Modern Fishing Industry

After economic reforms began in 1978, China’s fishing industry expanded dramatically, becoming one of the fastest growing sectors among the country’s agricultural industries. A growing market economy combined with declining state monopolies and the lowering of trade barriers between Chinese regions created an environment in which the aquaculture industry could thrive. Technological advancements also paved the way for expanded production. An artificial breeding program for carp that was developed in the 1950s led to a surge in carp farming. Production of other species, such as seaweed, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, grew rapidly after the 1980s. In 2003, total aquaculture production was 30.28 million metric tons compared with 1.23 million metric tons in 1979. Fish from capture fisheries and aquaculture increased from 20 percent of total animal products in 1985 to 32 percent in 2002.

Marine capture fisheries dominated production until the 1980s, when the depletion of many major marine fisheries forced the government to focus on developing aquaculture. In 1978, marine capture fisheries accounted for 73.9 percent of total aquatic production. By 1993, over 50 percent of total fish production came from aquaculture, making China the first major fish-producing country to have higher production from aquaculture than from wild capture fishing.

In 2004, marine fisheries produced 26.17 million metric tons of output. Marine capture fisheries contributed 14.47 million tons, including production from distant-water fisheries. In that same year, China’s marine fishing fleet consisted of nearly 280,000 motorized fishing vessels, a significant increase from the 50,000 motorized vessels in 1980. Those vessels operate within China’s national boundaries as well as on the high seas and within the boundaries of other countries that have agreements with China, such as Japan, Republic of Korea, and Vietnam.

Mariculture, or marine culture in intertidal zones, small bays, and shallow seas, accounted for 5.8 percent of total catches in 1970. But marine and brackish water aquaculture has grown over the last couple of decades as the culture systems have diversified to include floating rafts, pens, cages, indoor tanks with water recirculation, sea-bottom culture, and sea ranching. Before 1980, the main farmed species were kelp, laver (red algae with fronds), and mussels. A variety of marine fish species and mollusks have since been developed for farming and include seaweed, fish, crustaceans (especially prawns), and mollusks (particularly scallops). Output increased from 9.7 million metric tons in 1999 to 13.2 million metric tons in 2004. The increase in output was mainly in shellfish and seaweed. Mariculture has benefited recently from the practice of integrated culture, where some species may be bred with others, such as mollusks in prawn ponds or with cultivated seaweed. Integrated farming methods produced over 300,000 metric tons in 2004.

Carp continues to be the most important species of fish cultured in China, and the number of species increased from 12 in 1999 to 39 in 2004. Finfish account for 91 percent of total inland culture output, crustaceans 6.4 percent, and algae and other species (soft-shell turtle, frog, etc.) make up the remainder.

Since the 1950s, fish culture has spread from the traditional core areas of the Yangzi (Chang) and Pearl river deltas to virtually all provinces. Even lakes and reservoirs in remote regions and paddy fields in mountainous areas have been exploited. Nonetheless, pond culture is the most popular method of fish farming in China, accounting for 70 percent of total inland culture output in 2004. In formerly less-developed regions in the north, northeast, and northwest, the output of freshwater aquaculture has grown from 2.8 percent of the country’s total in 1979 to 15.42 percent in 2002.

Open-water fish farming in reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and channels has become more productive in recent years through the use of cages, net enclosures, and pens. The average unit output of inland aquacult
ure has increased about 10.72 times, from 297 kilograms per hectare in 1979 to 3,185 kilograms per hectare in 2003.

Rice paddy fish farming has grown from small-scale production to an important commercial activity. Paddy areas for fish farming expanded to 1.56 million hectares in 2003, with a total output of 1.024 million metric tons. Carp is the main species to be farmed, but Chinese river crab has become more popular because of its increased profitability.

Before 1960, fish farmers depended on fry (immature fish) from wild stock to seed their farms. Between 1958 and 1960, techniques were developed to artificially induce spawning for the four main species of carp, greatly increasing the availability of fry. Later, artificial propagation techniques, including induced breeding and hatching and larval breeding, were developed for additional varieties of fish. The expansion of fry production by artificial propagation was especially rapid after 1978. By the 1990s, most counties had at least one fingerling (fish up to a year in age) farm to supply local fish farmers.

After a period of rapid growth, the industry has encountered a serious decline in traditional high quality fishery resources. By 1990, average yields in capture fisheries had dropped to less than 50 percent of 1950s levels. Many traditional species have been overexploited, and harvests have increasingly shifted toward juvenile fish and low-value species. Industrial and domestic discharge has contaminated many lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. Red tides—massive concentrations of microscopic algae that flower and multiply rapidly—have caused serious losses in mariculture production along the South China coast.

The government first formulated a sustainable development strategy for its marine program in 1996. In 1999, the government set forth a goal of “zero growth” in coastal marine capture fishing, and it enacted a plan of “minus growth” in 2001. To achieve these goals, the government began reducing the number of fishing vessels in 2002 and moving fishermen away from marine capture fisheries. By 2004, the government had spent nearly $100 million, scrapped nearly 8,000 vessels, and relocated over 40,000 fishermen. In 2006, the government issued the Programme of Action on Conservation of Living Aquatic Resources of China. The plan calls for a halt to the deterioration of aquatic environments, the decline of fishery resources, and the increase in the number of endangered species by the year 2010. Overcapacity is to be reduced, while efficiency and economic benefits are to be increased.

Further Reading

China Fisheries—NOAA library. (2000). Retrieved June 23, 2008, from

Food and Agriculture Administration of the United Nations. (2003). National Aquaculture Sector Overview, China. Retrieved June 22, 2008, from

Food and Agriculture Administration of the United Nations. (2006). Fisheries and Aquaculture, Country Profile: China. Retrieved July 7, 2008, from

Rana, K. J. (1997). China. In Review of the State of World Aquaculture. FAO Fisheries Circular, no. 886. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved January 18, 2002, from

U.S. Embassy in Beijing. (2002). China’s Immense Fisheries. Retrieved June 23, 2008, from

Zhong Yiguang & Power, G. (1997) “Fisheries in China: Progress, Problems, and Prospects.” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 54, 224–238.

Source: Eng, Robert Y.. (2009). Fishing Industry. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 820–823. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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