Nestled in the Yellow Sea just off the Northeast coast of China lies a tiny patch of land called Zhangzi Island. Looking out the window of the ferry boat, the smog from Dalian recedes in the background and for the first time in three days, I see blue sky. The island appears in the distance, peppered with wind turbines and solar panels.
I’m with a group of WWF-China staff, representatives from the China Sustainable Retail Roundtable and the Marine Stewardship Council, eager to see firsthand what I’ve read and talked about for years – sustainable seafood production in action. Before docking, we watch as trawlers drop nets 40 meters deep, skimming the sea floor, swiping up sea scallops. Two deep sea divers jump in the freezing water and quickly return with a small sample for our tasting pleasure.
Zhangzi Island thrives on the seafood industry, dominated by the Zhangzidao Group which manages 70,000 hectares of the Yellow Sea. It’s a full service operation, covering hatching, farming, processing and trading of shellfish. As the largest seafood company listed on Shenzhen Stock Exchange, it’s so embedded into the island community that the 15,000 residents are shareholders; 30% of their collective income comes from seafood production.
Once we disembark, the company takes us to local processing facilities where workers split the shells with precision water technology, slicing the meat out cleanly, minimizing waste and using scant amounts of energy. The meat is put on ice, boxed and shipped to local markets where it will be eaten the following morning. The process is efficient, clean and mindful of the environment.
If you look at its website, the company boasts a variety of certifications, from the popular “Green Food” certificate to a Chinese organic label. But conspicuously absent is the MSC logo, one of the world’s most credible and recognizable eco-labels. In fact, not a single fishery in China has been certified by MSC to date, but, on WWF's recommendation, Zhangzidao Group is looking to change that. They have been pursuing MSC for about two years now and are currently in their final assessment period, which could finalize as early as this year.
“Zhangzi Island should be a great model for future fisheries in China,” Kelvin Ng, MSC’s Asia Regional Director tells me as we watch the trawler bring up scallops from the sea. “As they are a community owned fishery, the people of Zhangzi Island take great pride to ensure that their vessels are not overfishing – this, to benefit future generations. All vessels are monitored and recorded, providing useful information during the assessment of this iconic fishery.”
The next day, Kelvin takes the opportunity to brief the members of the Sustainable Retail Roundtable on the value MSC can bring to their business. He stresses the traction it has gained in several markets with top retailers providing sustainable seafood products to their customers. He asserts how rigorous the standards are, and how it has helped retail companies meet strict criteria for reducing their impacts on the environment.
As we board the ferry to head back to mainland, I reflect on how major retailers can learn from this relatively small island-based company in China. Zhangzidao Group is under no obligation to pursue the MSC certification. They’re doing it voluntarily because they see business value in maintaining fish stocks into the future. As China’s economy grows, so does consumer demand for their products. Many fisheries in the Yellow Sea and other parts of Asia are largely intact, but vulnerable to overfishing as companies scramble to meet skyrocketing demand. An unsustainable approach would have ripple effects for communities like Zhangzi Island and the habitats of species WWF is dedicated to protect.
“Scallops are of high conservation significance for this region,” says Li Nan, WWF’s head of Market Transformation in China. “Sustainable production can contribute to the conservation of the Yellow Sea, and to the wellbeing of local people and local business. Our collective efforts – NGOs, government, companies and certification bodies – can make a real difference.”
Here’s hoping Zhangzi Island serves as a model for the rest of China, and the world.