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Pollution contaminates China's fishing industry
Fish farming in China is facing a credibility crisis due to the high levels of pollution found in the country's water, as Huey Fern Tay reports.

For at least 2,000 years people around the world have been raising fish to boost their food supplies.

But in recent times, fish farming has taken off as overfishing has caused global stocks to plummet. And in China, there's also increasing pollution to contend with.

China correspondent Huey Fern Tay reports from Zhejiang Province.
HEUY FERN TAY, REPORTER: They call Digang the land of fish and rice. It's not hard to see why. For thousands of year, this region along China's Yangtze River has been a fertile food basket. Today, Digang supplies a tenth of the country's fresh water fish.

The river here is rich and so the history. The area's largest fish farm now doubles as a weekend getaway. And the owner proudly claims the chef has a link to the former Guimindang leader Chiang Kai-shek.

XU MINLI, OWNER, DIGANG FISH FARM (Translation): We are riding on a rich cultural heritage, everyone here rears fish, observes traditional practices, it's what makes us special.

HEUY FERN TAY: It's a representation Xu Minli is keen to tout.

The former fish farmer and wholesale fish trader has sunk $15 million into transforming her fish farm into a restaurant and hospitality business.

The changes began six years ago, and Xu Minli is feeling the pressure to succeed. She's doing whatever she can to overcome public perceptions that China's food isn't safe.

XU MINLI (translation): If you want to carve out a niche of your own it's difficult to avoid bad publicity altogether. But so long as you persist in whatever you do your customers will be able to form their own opinion.

HEUY FERN TAY: The increasing focus on food security and safety in China has seen scores of businesses adopt a back to basics approach.

In this fish farm, part of doing things the old way means keeping the water naturally clean by growing weeds.

But there's only so much China's 14 million fish farmers can do in the face of the rising tide of pollution being pumped into the waterways. The United Nations estimates that 75 per cent of the country's rivers are too polluted to be used for drinking, fishing or even irrigation.

The pollutants and chemicals are retained in the flesh of the fish, literally poisoning the livelihood of Chinese fish farmers who produce more fish than anywhere else in the world.

Although, Xu Minli is quick to claim that the food she serves is safe from the small private factories that surround the city.

XU MINLI (translation): Of course it's not good but they definitely don't have much negative effect on us. That's because the water in our farm isn't linked with the main river, that's isolated.

HEUY FERN TAY: But it seemed the health risks from eating Chinese fish don't just come from pollution. In this extremely competitive industry, there is temptation on the part of some farmer entrepreneurs to gain an edge by compromising on the quality of the fish feed.

Outside Xu Minli's development where the main road is flanked by plot after plot of farmed seafood we meet 50-year-old Wu Yongming who tells us of an industry fish practice which still happens but which he believes is isolated.

WU YONGMING, FISH FARMER (TRANSLATION): The negative publicity hasn't affected me, but the problem lies with the companies that produce fish feed. If they want the fish to grow faster, then they will put chemical additives in the fish feed which is damaging to a person's health.

HEUY FERN TAY: That type of practice comes as no surprise to environmental lawyer Wang Canfa. He says China's deliberately ambiguous laws provide a multitude of loopholes for damaging business practices to flourish.

WANG CANFA, ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYER (translation): When the law is ambiguous people from various departments may not be able to see how the law affects them. That means the law may be passed.

HEUY FERN TAY: Mr Wang also blames China's lack of action when enforcing environmental laws despite official recognition that more needs to be done to protect the environment.

Despite that, the legal aid centre he set up 13 years ago to help the victim of environmental pollution has succeeded in winning one of three law suits it has filed on their behalf.

It's an uphill battle, As the world supply of fish dwindles pressure is mounting on farmers all over to feed a growing appetite for seafood. And in China the challenge is ensuring the rush to meet that increase in demand doesn't come at a price.
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