One of SFP’s first aquaculture improvement projects (AIPs) focuses on Chinese tilapia and it is serving as a blueprint for SFP’s creative zonal management approach. China has been the world’s leading tilapia-farming region for nearly two decades, producing nearly 1.78 million tonnes in 2015 alone, or 31 percent of global production. The US is one of the primary export markets for Chinese tilapia, while other important destinations include Europe, South America, and Africa.

More than 90 percent of Chinese tilapia is grown in four provinces in South China: Guangdong, currently the leader, followed by Hainan, Guangxi, and Fujian. Several different species are cultivated in intensive and semi-intensive ponds, cages, and reservoirs. The main species is Oreochromis niloticus, with smaller volumes of Oreochromis mossambicus and other species.

“Our interest and involvement in this species began back in 2007, when SFP was asked to advise some of our key corporate partners on their tilapia procurement policy and sourcing protocols,” said SFP Aquaculture Director Anton Immink.

“Four years later we set up the Chinese Tilapia AIP and work is ongoing to make it a success. We have taken a new approach to aquaculture sustainability, which looks at the way in which everything interacts in order to achieve improvements across an entire zone. This is taking time to bed in with all the different organizations and stakeholders involved, but progress is now speeding up and real improvements are being seen on the ground,” he added.     

Han Han, former SFP China Program Manager, started working with the AIP at SFP and has since set up a Chinese NGO, China Blue, that is continuing the work. She said production has more than doubled over just 10 years, with steady growth each year thanks to improvements in breeding techniques and culture technology. “The Chinese government is supporting an ongoing R&D program to breed new hybrids of O. niloticus, aimed at improving growth potential and disease resistance,” she said.

However, with fast growth of the industry came issues related to sustainability, environmental management and disease control, and poor rankings by NGOs in their fish guides.

Given the importance of this fish, and following their initial investigative work for their partners, SFP saw an ideal opportunity to set up an AIP. “The aim was to help the supply chain to address these issues through zonal management, improving working practices, strengthening sustainable sourcing of feed, and minimizing impacts on biodiversity,” Immink said.   

The first step was to undertake audits on farms in China and other countries to compare and benchmark the three international certification schemes run by GlobalG.A.P., the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (GAA/BAP), and the International Standard for Responsible Tilapia Aquaculture developed by the World Wildlife Fund (ASC/ISRTA). This study compared the three programs and highlighted areas for improvement, which SFP believed could be addressed through the collaborative zonal approach.

The second step was to study the Chinese tilapia supply chain and to identify the challenges it would face on the road to sustainability.

Key tilapia farmers, processors, and feed and seed producers from Hainan Province, along with major seafood buyers from North America, formed an Aquaculture Policy Roundtable in September 2012, marking a major step forward for the AIP. The aim was to formalize the Chinese Tilapia AIP and to establish a roadmap for SFP to pilot zonal management.

The roundtable soon morphed into the Hainan Tilapia Sustainability Alliance, which would use zonal management to address many sustainability issues. Companies signed up to the Alliance include: ProGift Tech, a key breeder and hatchery; Tongwei Aquatic, the largest aquafeed producer in China and a major fish processor; Xiangtai Fisheries, the largest tilapia processor in Hainan; Sky-Blue Ocean Foods, a subsidiary of GroBest, one of the leading feed producers in Asia; and Kingwin Aquaculture, a service provider, feed seller, fish buyer, and provider of training and water management services.

The Alliance worked with farmers’ groups and co-ops to establish their own Code of Good Practice as a starting point for introducing regional management for tilapia production. Click here to download a copy of the document.

SFP encouraged the Alliance to collaborate with technical institutes, NGOs active in the area, regulatory bodies, and global buyers to help them understand the aquaculture improvement process and encourage them to get involved in the project.

“At state level, we have been working closely with the China Aquatic Product Processing and Marketing Alliance, discussing sustainable development of tilapia at forums and conferences and advising key Chinese policy makers to improve their regulations and standards,” said Han.

Han said AIPs are still at an early stage compared with FIPs, which are now well established. “A lot of our work in the first few years was spent in preparing the ground, building trust in SFP, helping people to understand what an AIP was, and how involvement of the entire supply chain would help to bring about measureable improvements.”

“It has also been difficult to get major buyers on board, as an AIP doesn’t focus on a single farm from which they might purchase their fish. Instead, it encourages all related businesses in a region to collaborate on environmental and industry improvements, so the immediate benefit is not always obvious to buyers if their supplier already meets one of the international standards,” she said.

However, it appears that SFP’s efforts are being rewarded in the Chinese Tilapia AIP. “We are now beginning to hear from suppliers that the message is filtering down through the supply chain, and for the first time they are being approached about AIP involvement, so we must be doing something right!” Han said.