A fishing boat on the Kashi River in Xinjiang, where clean, cool and well-oxygenated mountain snowmelt provides an ideal habitat for rainbow trout aquaculture (COURTESY PHOTO)
Tucked away in the far interior of Eurasia, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is known for its vast expanses of desert landscapes. Since late August, however, sales of aquatic products hailing from the landlocked region has soared on China's e-commerce platforms. Also, the hashtag "no free shipping for remote coastal regions" has gone insanely viral among fish retailers. The "disclaimer" mocks a widespread practice among online vendors of not offering free delivery to addresses in Xinjiang and some other remote regions due to the high logistics costs involved. All in all, they suggest a curious inversion of the usual market dynamics.
Despite its frequent associations with deserts and droughts, Xinjiang is in fact a major fishery hub in northwest China with abundant water, which includes some 20 rivers and more than 100 lakes. According to the Third National Land Resource Survey published in 2021, around 3 million hectares of water area in Xinjiang is suitable for aquaculture.
One thing is for certain: Xinjiang's aquaculture, a longstanding yet previously little known sector, has swum its way upstream into the spotlight.
Trout on trend
Nestled deep in the celestial Tianshan Mountains, a white building stands on a cliff above the Kashi River, where rolls of strange circles float on the water's surface. This otherworldly scene belongs to a fish farm owned by Xinjiang Tianyun Organic Agriculture Co. Ltd., an aquaculture company based in Nilka County, Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture.
Fed by mountain snowmelt that stays below 20 degrees Celsius all year round, the Kashi River is ideal for the breeding of rainbow trout, a cold-water fish that normally grows in clean, well-oxygenated freshwater kept between 12 and 21 degrees Celsius.
Despite its recent rise to fame, local rainbow trout aquaculture is not a new phenomenon. The species was first introduced to the Ili River valley in west Xinjiang in the 1970s. Building upon past technological breakthroughs, Tianyun was founded in 2014. Over the course of a decade, the company has set up an integrated system that combines intelligent farming, processing and retail.
Every year, millions of rainbow trout eggs are imported from Denmark and taken to the company's laboratories, where they will hatch into juveniles and then be transferred to a "fish kindergarten" for further growth.
What follows is an automated process reminiscent of the highly streamlined production in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Rainbow trout are sorted according to their sizes by a machine and then pumped through a maze of tubes into different net enclosures, where they spend another five months until fully grown. Underwater robots work continuously to remove silt and fish droppings from the bottom of the cage. These collected wastes are then turned into fertilizers for newly planted orchards in the surrounding area.
Once harvested, these rainbow trout will be transported to riverside facilities for initial processing, and then to a factory 390 km away in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, where they are skinned, gutted and packaged. "From the time a rainbow trout is brought out of water, it will be delivered to Shanghai, one of our major markets, within 24 hours," Zhang Xiu, founder and CEO of Tianyun, told Beijing Review.
Advanced solutions for seamless cold chain transit have allowed Tianyun's products to not only sell well on Fresh Hema, JD Fresh and other online supermarkets, but also to be exported to Russia, Malaysia and Singapore. According to Zhang, this year's output is estimated at 6,000 tons, a huge increase from last year's 3,475 tons.
The company is also building a breeding center, which will be dedicated to the research and development of homegrown stock. "We welcome challenges, and we are on our way to breaking the longstanding monopolies of foreign suppliers," Zhang said.
A blue desert
Rainbow trout farming is just one example of how Xinjiang's aquaculture is shattering old stereotypes and breaking the mold of traditional fisheries.
Wu Zhiyou is one of the many locals who have found their life's work in fisheries. While his slicked-back undercut seems to suggest a hipper profession, the darkened skin of this 38-year-old man betrays his long engagement with the fishing trade. Having discovered his passion for fishing at a very young age, Wu, after dipping into many other industries, eventually decided to set up a business that specializes in the production of carp, one of the most commonly consumed fish species in China.
Things took an interesting turn in 2020, the year in which Rizhao, a coastal city in the eastern province of Shandong, began to introduce crayfish culture techniques to Makit County in Kashgar (Kashi) Prefecture. Deeply intrigued by this seemingly impossible mission, Wu signed up as a trainee.
Makit is located on the southwestern rim of the Taklimakan Desert, the second largest desert in the world. However, the county also borders the Yarkand River and is home to a vast network of wetlands. "The water here is slightly alkaline, which provides an optimal environment for crayfish farming," Wu told Beijing Review.
This January, Wu rented a few idle ponds not far from the Yarkand River and turned them into Xinjiang's first breeding base for Australian red claw crayfish. The farming process, however, was not as easy as he thought. In July, instead of entering a period of rapid growth as expected, the crayfish stopped molting. After consultations with aquaculture experts, Wu realized that the rampant water weeds had blocked most of the sunlight. Adjustments were made and the first harvest in early September reached 500 kg. The annual output is expected to reach 3 tons this year, he said.
On the other side of the Taklimakan Desert, farmers are harvesting crabs from Lop Nur, a saline lake that was once nearly dried up. Often referred to as the "Sea of Death" for its extreme aridity, the lake has been gradually brought back to life since 2000, the year when local authorities started a program that diverts water from the Tarim River to desert areas. Now, with a water area totaling 800 hectares, Lop Nur has become a bustling base for the production of freshwater crabs.
While freshwater aquaculture extends its reach to Xinjiang's driest corners, advanced techniques have also allowed marine life to enter this landlocked region. Starting in the 1990s, scientists began to explore ways to acclimate Pacific white shrimp, a species from the eastern Pacific Ocean, to inland fresh waters. Flash forward 30 years and now it is one of the most widely farmed seafood products in Xinjiang. An aquafarm in south Xinjiang has also succeeded in using local saline-alkaline water to simulate seawater, in which abalone, lobster and sea bass now thrive.
Certainly, the future of Xinjiang's aquaculture looks promising—but is not without challenges. The combined forces of supportive policies, ecological management and scientific progress have made Xinjiang into a new land of opportunity, with implications that can reshape China's aquaculture industry. However, the region's fishery sector is still in dire need of better infrastructure and more highly skilled professionals. "There is still much room for growth," Zhang Renming, Director of the Institute of Fisheries Research of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, told Beijing Review.
Though Xinjiang's aquatic products still occupy only a small niche in the domestic fishery market, Zhang remains confident in the sector's potential. BR
(Reporting from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
Comments to email@example.com