Water quality fears will mean a price hike for famous hairy crabs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2007, 12:00am

Authorities will cut the amount of space allocated to breeding the popular Yangcheng Lake hairy crab by 60 per cent this year, and probably down to zero by next year, in a bid to save the lake's water quality.

Hairy crab farms take up about 5,333 hectares of the lake in Jiangsu province, but that will be cut to 2,133 hectares by spring to save the deteriorating water quality, China News Service reported yesterday.

The decision came one month after a water crisis in Tai Lake caused by a blue-green algae outbreak, which forced millions of people in the neighbouring city of Wuxi to go without tap water for days. Yangcheng Lake, together with Tai Lake, is a major source of drinking water in Suzhou , but its quality has been deteriorating due to the crab farms.

At its peak in 2001, more than 80 per cent of the lake was occupied by crab farms, according to the report.

The report echoed an order by the State Environmental Protection Administration on tough measures that needed to be taken to improve water safety, including gradual elimination of fish farming and a total ban on farming and animal husbandry within a kilometre of the lakes' peak waterlines.

The report cited an unidentified fishery expert as saying farmers should catch juvenile crabs, near where the lake met the Yangtze River, and raise them in Yangcheng Lake.

Another report, by the Shanghai Youth Daily, said the Tai Lake Fishing Management Authority was considering following suit and cutting the area of crab farms to 3,000 hectares, possibly leading to a 60 per cent reduction in crab farm areas, this year, and eventually phasing them out altogether.

But crab farmers are not enthusiastic about the plan. Instead, the announcement stirred up concerns about their livelihoods.

Cheng Weifeng, who breeds hairy crabs on four hectares of Yangcheng Lake, said the reduced area of crab farming would cut into production. 'We put only 500 juvenile crabs in 0.06 hectares of water and probably get 300 adult crabs. We can't put the same amount of juvenile ones in reduced areas of water because it will affect the weight and size of the crabs,' Mr Cheng said. 'If no crab farms are allowed, what can we crab farmers do to make a living?'

Kay Kwong-nan, owner of Old San Yang, a crab wholesale and retail outlet in Hong Kong, predicted that the drop in production would lead to a price rise for Yangcheng Lake crabs next year.

Mr Kay, who had just returned from a visit to crab-raising lakes in Jiangsu, said this year's crab price would remain about the same as last year thanks to a plentiful supply from the mainland.

'But if the government cuts the breeding area in Yangcheng Lake by that much, I guess this speciality product will become 30 per cent more expensive than before,' he said.

Mr Kay, who has run a crab business for more than 40 years in Hong Kong, imported around one tonne of crabs from Yangcheng Lake last year, selling them for HK$280 for 800 grams. 'The Yangcheng Lake crabs are less popular in Hong Kong compared with seven or eight year ago. They taste fishier and have less oil now due to the worsening quality of the lake water,' he said.