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Fake Crab Market Hurts Farmers
Summary:It's already been three days since the ceremony to mark the beginning of the annual harvest of China's famous Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs (阳澄湖大闸蟹) was held, but crab farmer Zhu Ahjian (a pseudonym) hasn't been able to sell a single crab.


By Liu Jinsong (刘金松)  
Issue 589, Oct 8, 2012
Nation, page 9
Translated by Zhu Na
Original article:

It's already been three days since the ceremony to mark the beginning of the annual harvest of China's famous Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs (阳澄湖大闸蟹) was held, but crab farmer Zhu Ahjian (a pseudonym) hasn't been able to sell a single crab.

Zhu and his wife have taken two baskets full of their own hairy crabs to the resturauts and crab market of Repulse Bay (浅水湾) everyday since the ceremony was held in late September. Zhu hasn't been able to close a single deal over the past three days, no restaurant owners have come to purchase his catch nor have any crab merchants shown any interest.  

Zhu says he is already used to the fact that the hairy crab market appears to be booming outside the area but has remained quite cool around the lake itself.

"For the past two years no [crab] merchants have come to purchase our crabs, I don't know where all the Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs out there come from," Zhu said.

With the sudden rise in popularity of hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake, many business people have been able to make money off the brand name. The local government is also trying to take advantage of the situation by drawing up a plan to attract tourists and investment, but it's ordinary crab farmers like Zhu that appear to have been forgotten in this wave of prosperity that started with the crabs.

"How can it be that the Yangcheng Lake hairy crab brand is becoming more and more well-known but the income of crab farmers is declining?"

Local Crab Farmers Doing it Tough

55-year-old Zhu has raised crabs for more than ten years. He lives in the township of Weiting (唯亭镇), which is inside the Suzhou Industrial Park. Weiting boasts the most crab farms in the area surrounding Yangcheng Lake and the town accounts for one third of the total Yangcheng Lake hairy crab harvest.

When discussing the recent popularity of Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, Zhu notes that crab farmers aren't really making much money, for example from the 20 mu (3.3 acres) of the lake that he and his wife lease to raise crabs, they can only make between 30,000 and 40,000 yuan a year.

Zhu calculates that the cost for building a fence for their plot is about 30,000 yuan; the fence can be used for 3 to 4 years. The cost of purchasing young crabs to stock the farm is about 20,000 yuan each year. The feed sets them back about another 60,000 yuan each year and when additional costs such as the rent for the waters are included, the total investment required each year comes to about 100,000 yuan, not including labor.

Costs have been increasing year after year, but income is not stable. The crabs farmed on the Zhu's plot can sell for between 130,000 and 140,000 yuan in a good season, but if there is bad weather, they could lose money.

Crabs are graded according to their size - large, medium and small. Male crabs weighing over 200 grams and female crabs over 175 grams are considered large, the out of lake price for such crabs is about 280-320 yuan per kilogram. For crabs that weigh less than 100 grams, the price is only about 40 to 60 yuan per kilogram.

When Zhu is on the streets hawking his crabs, he'll always say "my crabs are authentic Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, I can offer a discount if you want to buy in bulk." Then he will show potential buyers the crab authentication tag issued by local quality supervision authority to prove that his crabs really are certified Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs.

There are plenty of potential customers from nearby restaurants who come to have a look and people driving by stop to ask the price, but no-one buys.

"Not a single crab has been sold at this market," said Zhang Xiangsheng (张祥生), a farmer who rents a shop front in a crab market near Repulse Bay. Zhang estimated that many crab farmers will lose money this year.

Some crab dealers don't purchase Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs anymore, but purchase crabs from other places and transfer them to Yangcheng Lake. After a quick dip in the lake, these crabs - known as "shower crabs (洗澡蟹)" - have magically turned into the sought after "Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs."

Zhu described how during the peak season for crab orders, trucks full of crabs from other places will pull up at the lakeside.

What used to be the breeding ground for big hairy crabs is turning into a collection point for crabs from everywhere else.

"You just make a call and tell them what size of crab you want and then they'll send them over from another market, no one will buy the genuine local Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs," said Zhu.

The Hairy Crab Market

Compared to struggling crab farmers, hairy crab dealers appear to be earning huge profits.

Take the Xinyang (鑫阳) Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs that are sold in Beijing as an example. The boutique gift boxes sold by this company include three 200 gram male crabs and three 150 gram female crabs, they sell for 826 yuan, which is equivalent to 2.3 times the "lakeside" purchase price.
Of course, these are simply the profit margins enjoyed by crab merchants who are willing to play by the rules. Less scrupulous dealers can make up to ten times as much off crabs sales if they're willing and able to pass off ordinary crabs as Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs. The key to these profits is the crab authentication tag which certifies a Yangcheng Lake hairy crab.

Each Yangcheng Lake hairy crab is marked with a white plastic ring. The ring works like a small lock put on the crabs. When customers open the back of the ring, a 12 digital number is printed on the inside along with the year in Chinese characters and the letters DNA.

These authentication tags are produced and issued according statistics collected by the agricultural and forestry department, in general, 6,000 rings are issued for each 20 mu (3.3 acres) aquiculture area.

On the illegal secondary market, these white plastic ring which were originally sold to farmers for less than one yuan, are sold to traders for between two or three yuan. If farmers do choose to sell their authentication tags onto others, they're still able to sell their crabs to regular customers or at a discount.

Local Government Attempts to Cash In on Crab Fever

Although Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs have become famous across the country, the industry still doesn't account for a large proportion of the local economy. Each year the direct production value of Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs is only about 300 million yuan.

The local government has also been reducing the area of Yangcheng Lake that is open to crab farming. By 2008, the area of Yangcheng Lake which is open to crab farming was reduced from a peak of 141,000 mu (23,228 acres) to 32,000 mu (5,272 acres).

Wu Gennan (吴根男), secretary general of Suzhou Industrial Park's Hairy Crab Farming Association  said that just from the economic point of view, crab farming is certainly not a big money earner for the local government. The revenue from various taxes and charges placed on the industry is not enough to cover the amount they spend on maintaining water quality and environmental management.

The areas around Yangcheng Lake area are aiming to take advantage of the famous hairy crabs  by developing tourism and other industries.

For example, Xiangcheng District of Suzhou recently established some ecological tourism resorts around Yangcheng Lake. Suzhou Industrial Park also opened a Yangcheng Lake holiday resort zone. The area, which supported by profits from the Industrial park, includes high-end shopping malls, cinemas, hotels that specialize in Japanese-style hot springs and high-end villas.

Zhu is a bit confused by the government's push to clean the lake's waters, noting how they reduced the areas available to farmers and banned them from operating motor boats, but now boats carry tourists speed across the waters vacated by the farmers.



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