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Chinese sturgeon and caviar industry

30/09/2019

Sturgeons in China and their conservation

Historically, sturgeons had an important role in people’s ordinary lives in China. The earliest established record of sturgeons in China was during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), fried sturgeon was a popular food. Today, sturgeons are becoming again popular on Chinese family tables. Currently there are eight species of sturgeon in China, distributed in the Yangtze River basin and related estuaries, Heilongjiang River basin and the river basins in Xinjiang.

China joined the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1981 to address sturgeon conservation. Acipenser sinensis, Acipenser dabryanus and Psephurus gladius were listed among the first class of the List of Wild Animals under State Priority Conservation in 1989 in China. As a result, all fishing was strictly banned except for scientific research. The other species of Acipenseriformes in China, including Acipenser schrenckii, A. baeri, A. ruthenus and A. nudiventris, were listed in the second class of the List of Wild Animals under State Priority Conservation of China. Since then, the Chinese Wild Animal Conservation Laws and Aquatic Animal Protection regulations have been widely amended. Fishers are now more aware of the critical situation of sturgeon so they are protecting the species consciously. Illegal sturgeon fishing and smuggling bans have been enforced to protect the natural sturgeon resources.

Series of sturgeon releasing stations for repopulation were established in 1988, including Qindeli Schrenckii sturgeon breading and releasing station, Fuyuan County sturgeon releasing station, Luobei sturgeon releasing station, Heilongjiang provincial aquatic animal rescue center, the test base and the stock farm of Dauricus sturgeon of Heilongjiang Provincial Special Fish Research Institute, Shijingjiekuo of Tongjiang City releasing station. All stations release fingerlings and juveniles in Heilongjiang Basins. The A. sinensis Conservation Area of Yichang Hubei Province was established in 1996.

In 2000, Leichuang–Hechuang State Level Rare Fish Species Reservation Area was set up to protect Psephurus gladius and A. dabryanus in the Yangtze River. The Jiangsu Provincial Taizhong A. sinensis Conservation Area and Breading Research Center was founded in the same year. Since 2002, fingerlings and juveniles of A. sinensis are being released in the Yangtze River every year to restock the population. Releasing made great contributions to restock the sturgeon population in its original habitats.

Sturgeon Farming in China

According to the 1988 Wild Animal Protection Law, all enterprises involved in sturgeon breeding, sales, production of caviar and any other sturgeon products must apply for the Aquatic Wild Animal Domesticated and Breeding Permit as well as the Aquatic Wild Animal Operation and Use Permit that are issued by provincial wildlife administration authorities. All sturgeon stock in farms must be recorded and comply with the traceability system of food safety. 

China started artificial sturgeon reproduction studies in 1957. A. schrenckii was the first species to be bred successfully. Following that, between 1973 and 1976, A. sinensis and A. dabryanus were successfully reproduced in artificial conditions, for the release of fingerlings and juveniles to restock the sturgeon resources in the rivers.

Commercial sturgeon farming in China started in the last decade of the 20th century. All farmed species were imported with the exception of A. schrenckii, which originated in China. A. baerii, A. gueldenstaedtii, H. huso and A. ruthenus were imported from the Russian Federation, Germany, France and Italy. Some hybrid species such as A. schrenckii (♂) x H. dauricus (♀), A. baerii (♂) x A. schrenckii (♀) were generated and are now widely farmed in China.

The boom in development of sturgeon farming in China started in the early 21st century. The total production of sturgeon in China grew from 10 900 tonnes in 2003 to over 90 000 tonnes in 2017, which made China the largest sturgeon producer in the world. The main sturgeon products in China are fresh 1–2 kg fish for meat consumption, which is unique in the world where normally sturgeon is raised for caviar production. The main species farmed in China are hybrids (80 percent), A. baerii (10 percent), A. schrenckii and others (10 percent).

There are several farming patterns implemented in China, including raceways, cages, as well as recirculation systems. Due to environmental regulations implemented in recent years, many water areas are now barred from aquaculture. A large number of sturgeon farms shut down, leading to a significant decrease in sturgeon production and stocking in the farms. As a result, Chinese sturgeon production is not expected to increase but most likely to remain steady or slightly decrease in the future.

Contribution of sturgeon farming to rural economic development in China

China is a developing country with an imbalanced economic development between urban and rural areas. Improving economic development is key to improve living standards of the rural population. Many sturgeon farms are based in poverty and minority areas, making sturgeon farming an important source of employment in local communities. Sturgeon farms are providing tens of thousands of jobs in their local areas. The CITES administration offers an opportunity for local authorities and people to learn and understand the importance of environmental conservation. This program directly resulted in the improvements for wildlife and environment conservation in local areas.

Caviar production in China

Due to the long sexual maturity cycle of female sturgeons and the high risk in the investment in sturgeon farming, only 20 percent of sturgeon in China is used in caviar production. The production of Chinese cultured caviar grew from 0.7 tonnes in 2006 to 135 tonnes in 2018, as female sturgeons cultured by companies in Hunan, Zhejiang, Yunnan, Sichuan and other regions are now mature. The first batch of farmed caviar that China exported in 2006 was only 0.6 tonnes. Since then, exports have grown significantly to 93 tonnes in 2017, and China has become a large caviar producer and exporter in the world. 

Following the reduction in farmed sturgeon production, caviar production will decrease accordingly. Chinese caviar production is expected to change from quantity growth to quality improvement. The world’s most common caviar species are A. baerii and A. gueldenstaedtii, which China does not produce. The most common caviar produced in China is sourced from a local sturgeon species, which is a hybrid of H. dauricus and A. schrenckii.

Chinese caviar market

China will become the largest consumer market in the world. Varieties of food from abroad such as wine, cheese, and salmon are now usual to Chinese consumers. Caviar is a luxury item in Europe and the United States of America and Chinese consumers are now gradually accepting it. With the increasing acceptance of foreign food and a growing middle class, caviar is increasing popularity in China. The total volume of caviar sold in China is still lower than in other major markets but it is growing significantly. Caviar producers and distributors have made considerable efforts to promote caviar in the Chinese market. Caviar promotion events are hosted weekly in different cities in China, and include consumer information campaigns, events and gatherings.

Outlook

China is one of the most important caviar producers and exporters in the world. Due to rising family incomes as well as urbanization of rural areas, domestic demand for caviars is increasing rapidly. With the lessened supply caused by environmental regulations along with the growing domestic demand, caviar prices in China are expected to be steady and growing in the future.

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