Cross-strait fish farm boom threatens southern Taiwan’s environment

For Asia Sentinel

Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in general and President Ma Ying-jeou in particular have long been the pet aversion of southern Taiwan’s rural population. The formula has been simple: The further away from the capital Taipei, the less do people want to hear about the KMT’s China-friendly course and closer cross-strait cooperation. Now, however, the Holy Grail the KMT government has desperately been looking for to sway public opinion in the opposition strongholds might have been found, albeit an unlikely one. Contrary to what one might expect, it’s not some giant infrastructure project, neither is it the development of yet another industrial park that’s meant to make rural dwellers in the south like the KMT. It is the the farming of the grouper, a fish that enjoys increasing popularity on China’s newly affluent dinner tables.

China and Hong Kong are grouper-hungry, and Taiwan’s government wants the island’s south to satisfy the demand. The grouper is raised in ponds and is one of Taiwan’s farm items to be given zero tariff treatment in the China-Taiwan economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA). Since China’s market is worth up to US$3.1 billion annually, Taiwan’s southern Pingtung and Kaohsiung counties have been experiencing a boom that resembles a gold rush: farmers, fishermen and factory workers alike scramble to cash in the hype by setting up fish farms. Yet, what is meant to be an invitation to southerners to have a piece of the lucrative cross-strait trade cake comes along with weighty repercussions for the environment since Taiwan’s aquaculture industry has long been blamed for blatant land subsidence caused by the pumping of groundwater.

This time, governmental agencies dismiss all objections. They say that since the grouper is a saltwater fish, it has nothing to do with the sinking of land whatsoever. But matters are not quite as simple, and President Ma Ying-jeo’s attempt to win hearts and minds in Taiwan’s south is likely to bring along plenty of environmental issues.

“Although the Fisheries Agency promotes saltwater fish aquaculture, it does cause land subsidence, because the use of groundwater is still needed to adjust pond water salinity”, complains Peter Lin Sun, an associate professor of aquaculture at Taiwan’s National Pingtung University of Science and Technology in an interview with Asia Sentinel. “You can find severe land subsidence caused by clusters of grouper ponds, too”, so Sun.

Since the 1990s, Taiwan has been facing massive land subsidence in coastal areas, and in many rural regions figures are somewhat dramatic. Dacheng Township in Changhua County has sunk as much as 1.6m, while Taisi in Yunlin County, Dongshih in Chiayi County, Hunei in Kaohsiung County and Jiadong in Pingtung County have sunk 30, 40, 62 and 38cm, respectively.

Land subsidence of such an extend is extremely dangerous. Apart from threatening all kinds of infrastructure and putting rail traffic safety in jeopardy, sunk areas are more likely to be devastated by flooding brought by typhoons that frequently hit the island.

Naturally, fish farming isn’t the only culprit that draws fresh water. Agriculture, factories and private wells pump, too. But the KMT’s ambitious plan to turn Taiwan into the world’s largest grouper producer which ships 90% of its fish to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Fujian could as well tip the balance, especially since saltwater aquaculture comes along with yet another nasty feature, which is soil salinization.

“It is absolutely necessary to set up buffer zones between saltwater fish farms and agriculture land, but the Fisheries Agency fails to do so”, says Sun, who made it his mission to take on wrong government policies which in his eyes could turn fertile farmland into deserts. “Agriculture and saltwater aquaculture have to be separated by fresh water channels since otherwise the seepage of the pond water will salinize the land”, he says.

It’s not only through leaks in ponds that salt will eventually make its way into the soil, it’s typhoons as well. The recent typhoon Fanapi, for instance, severely damaged 344 hectares of fish breeding ponds in Kaohsiung and Pingtung County.

Fish farming – whether it’s freshwater or saltwater- can lead to the establishment of a vicious circle: the use of groundwater leads to land subsidence, which in turn causes costal land to be flooded with seawater during typhoons; the flooding with seawater doesn’t only render agricultural land useless for a few years, it also erodes steel bars in reinforced concrete, consequently destroying bridges and buildings, and shortening the lifespan of the very dykes that were meant to keep the seawater in the ocean where it belongs.

There’s yet another factor hushed up in Taiwan’s government’s praise for grouper farms. That the water that fills the grouper ponds was taken from the ocean doesn’t mean that the effluent discharge will go back there. The key factor for economically successful aquaculture is the control of water quality, especially in high stocking density. Fish excretion is high in ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, and any uneaten feed quickly leads to the fouling of water. Therefore, saltwater in the breeding ponds not only has to be constantly replaced but also must be regarded as a pollutant. Organic nitrogen, phosphate as well as aggressive chemicals that are used in the ponds are likely to trickle away somewhere in the environment.

Over the last year, the price of quality grouper had increased 56 percent. In accordance with the KMT’s cross-strait policy, which led to the thawing of once hostile China-Taiwan relations, live grouper can now be transported to 11 harbors in China’s Fujian Province, right across the Taiwan Strait. As a further plus, the possible infringement of intellectual property protection on Taiwan’s grouper farmers’ superior breeding technology isn’t much of an issue since Taiwan is about the only place in the region that is perfectly suited to raise the delicacy. In Southeast Asian countries, temperatures are too high to raise groupers, while China is too cold for groupers during much of the year.

Politically, the promotion of grouper farming seems a lot like a try of a quick fix by the KMT. In the important mayoral elections in Taiwan’s five big cities to be held in November, in which 60% of Taiwan’s electorate will be eligible to cast the ballot, the KMT’s southern candidates lie hopelessly behind.

Resident of the rural south – male – age group 40 to 60: this is the very clientele the KMT in the past hadn’t even bothered much trying to woo. Yet, it’s exactly members of this target group who have always been vowing never to make business with China that are now keen cashing in on the grouper craze.

Whether all this will eventually pay out for the KMT is left to be seen, but just as Taiwan’s experts on aquaculture see grouper farming of questionable benefit do the island’s political observers, as Wang Yeh-lih, chairman of the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University, explains in an interview with Asia Sentinel. He says: “Although the grouper boom is to help the KMT, it won’t be anything more than marginal. It just has the symbolic meaning that Taiwan’s agricultural products have more opportunities after ECFA”.



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