FUQING, China — Here in southern China, beneath the looming mountains of Fujian Province, lie dozens of enormous ponds filled with murky brown water and teeming with eels, shrimp and tilapia, much of it destined for markets in Japan and the West.
Fuqing is No. 1 on a list for refused seafood shipments from China.
Fuqing is one of the centers of a booming industry that over two decades has transformed this country into the biggest producer and exporter of seafood in the world, and the fastest-growing supplier to the United States.
But that growth is threatened by the two most glaring environmental weaknesses in China: acute water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. The fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.
“Our waters here are filthy,” said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing. “There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They’re all discharging water here, fouling up other farms.”
Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.
Environmental degradation, in other words, has become a food safety problem, and scientists say the long-term risks of consuming contaminated seafood could lead to higher rates of cancer and liver disease and other afflictions.
No one is more vulnerable to these health risks than the Chinese, because most of the seafood in China stays at home. But foreign importers are also worried. In recent years, the European Union and Japan have imposed temporary bans on Chinese seafood because of illegal drug residues. The United States blocked imports of several types of fish this year after inspectors detected traces of illegal drugs linked to cancer.