China and Norway: brobdingnagian, ‘intelligent’ offshore salmon farms sold; salmon embargo might be lifted

State-owned shipbuilder CSIC (中船重工) are delivering the first of several semi-automated offshore fish farms ordered by Norwegian salmon farmers SalMar. Conceptually similar to semi-sumbersible rigs, the contraption measures 68~69 metres in height and 110 in diameter, can host more than a million specimens, and is endowed with intelligence. Last April, around the time of a visit to China by Norway’s fisheries minister, SalMar and CSIC agreed to make more of the things. Experts quoted in Chinese reports praise the breakthrough for Chinese industry, with references to the all-encompassing Belt and Road initiative, while SalMar themselves prefer to emphasise the thing was “developed in Norway” by over a dozen companies including Global Maritime. Whoever deserves more praise, everyone is happy with the development, presumably including the intelligent platform itself, should it be also capable of happiness.

The only party left out of this win-win situation is, allegedly, the salmon louse (Lepeophtheirus salmonis), the bane of Norway’s salmon industry. According to someone from Global Maritime, it is believed that salmon can delouse themselves if they swim deep enough, and more depth is available in offshore farms than in the fjords.

The first offshore farm began being built more than a year ago, when Sino-Norwegian relations had not yet been ‘normalised’. Norway was under (undeclared) Chinese sanctions as retaliation for tolerating the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 in 2010. The most visible manifestation of the sanctions was an (undeclared) embargo on Norwegian salmon that began within weeks of the Nobel brouhaha. The embargo, and the sanctions against Norway in general, were meant pour la galerie: as I discussed here, trade statistics and research by Xianwen Chen (陈贤文) and Roberto J. Garcia makes it clear that the overall economic impact of the sanctions was negligible in economic terms, and even the salmon industry was much less affected than media coverage suggested. The fact that Norwegian salmon farmers and Chinese state shipbuilders were signing contracts on these huge robot farms provides further illustration that economic relations between the two countries were going perfectly well despite the kill-the-salmon-to-scare-the-‘Wegians theatre.

The theatre was effective. After years of trying, the Norwegian government was finally bestowed with a ‘normalisation’ of relations late last year, stating its respect for China’s “development path and social system” as well as its “core interests and major concerns”. Since then, official contacts have resumed, Norwegian officials have been travelling to China, and a free trade agreement seems to be on the way. Remarkably, what would seem like a key aspect of this ‘normalisation’, lifting the salmon embargo, has had to wait. Weeks ago, half a year into normalisation, salmon industry voices admitted the ‘quarantine‘ over the Nobel was still on. In what could be a calculated way of showing the Norwegians who’s in charge, China let months pass before a salmon ‘protocol’ that took “weeks” of “intense” work to negotiate was signed on May 23. Fisheries minister Sandberg “hopes that the agreement will reopen salmon exports to China.”

The intelligent salmon fortress is called a ‘platform’ (平台) in Chinese, while the Norwegians call it a merd. The word seems to refer more generally to a number of less hi-tech devices that look like fishing nets; a cognate (mjärde) is used in Swedish, while a Danish one (mjærd) seems to have fallen out of use. The Norwegian dictionaries maintained by Bergen Uni/Språkrådet claim the word comes from Old Norse merðr, which has apparently not left a descendant in Modern Icelandic. And no, it has nothing to do with Ubu roi.

H/T Geoff Wade.

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