Good omens for a hairy harvest amid drought

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


This spring's record drought may have brought farmers and fishermen in the central mainland to the brink of ruin, but in the east some food producers are cautiously rubbing their hands.

Growers of hairy crabs on Yangcheng Lake, Jiangsu province, are predicting a bumper crop of crustaceans which, coupled with reduced competition and higher prices, could see them lining their pockets with healthy profits.

The drought took major rivers, lakes and reservoirs in central provinces to historically low levels before it broke last weekend, reportedly hitting crab growers in other parts of the Yangtze River Delta. While industry insiders doubt there will be a serious shortage of the freshwater delicacy, total supply is widely expected to drop by some 30 per cent and prices to rise at least 20 per cent.

Yangcheng Lake, a shallow, fan-shaped expanse of water virtually segmented into three by flat causeways and peninsulas, sits between Suzhou and Kunshan, and is the most famous source of the freshwater hairy crabs - Chinese mitten crabs - which are prized by gourmets every autumn.

Crabs have been harvested here for centuries as they begin to migrate out of the lake towards the Yangtze River Delta for the mating season, starting in late September. When crab season arrives, the delicacy is devoured in Shanghai restaurants by the crateful. Entire storefronts are crammed with pots of live crabs.

Shi Yongxing, who runs a crab farm in Qingshui village at the heart of the lake, said his initial fears about the drought's possible impact had proven unfounded. 'Water levels in the lake have certainly dropped over the past month or so, but I'm not complaining,' Shi said. 'This is actually better for us because the water is normally a little too deep.

Shi said he was optimistic his crab haul would outstrip those of previous years. 'You can never be certain until harvest time, but at the moment things are looking very positive. Our crabs are a lot bigger than they were at this time last year, so I am hoping for an above average crop.'

Shi is by no means alone. The Yangcheng Lake Crab Trade Association announced late last month that the region's crabs had already shed their second shells and were averaging 35-50 grams - over 10 grams heavier than at the same time last year. Hatchlings are released into the nets in February and March, so the crabs are about half way through their growth cycle. Males reach maturity first, in late September.

'October is the best time,' Shi said. 'That's when the crabs really taste their best.'

The Shi family's cluster of nets extend over a football-field-sized stretch of the lake about 100 metres from shore. It is just one of hundreds of such farms that dot the lake.

At another crab farm near Bacheng township, on the lake's northeastern shore, Chen Wei said he was counting his blessings. 'The whole Lake Tai region hasn't fared too badly,' he said, referring to a much larger lake to the west of Suzhou. 'We have been very fortunate here, as I have heard that other regions have been hit very badly. A lot of growers in Nanjing have lost many crabs due to the lack of water, and obviously Poyang Lake has been the worst affected.' The glint in Chen's eye hinted at a sense of schadenfreude.

The annual crop of genuine Yangcheng crabs is only around 1,500 tonnes, according to the trade association. But in recent years as much as 100,000 tonnes of crustaceans stamped with the lake's name have flooded the market.

Poyang Lake, in Jiangxi province, has been one of the main sources of fake Yangcheng hairy crabs. But with the drought shrinking that lake to less than a tenth of its normal area before the recent rain, its crab industry has been cut to virtually nil. 'At least there will be less competition,' was all Chen would say.

Yang Xiong, the manager of Yang's Hairy Crabs in central Shanghai, said the drought would undoubtedly cut the city's supply. 'There will definitely be a jump in prices this year, and we will have to pass that on to the customers,' he said.

'The drought will certainly have an impact, but so far it looks as if it won't be as bad as people had thought. But a lot can happen between now and September. You can never know for sure until they start taking the crabs out of the nets.'