为什么螃蟹越吃越多,刀鱼越吃越少 – The more crab we eat, the more there are – but it’s the opposite with pike

螃蟹和刀鱼是长江送给江南人民的两种美味。我记得小时候,在我南京的老家,春天吃刀鱼,到了中秋节螃蟹,家里每年的饭桌上就少不了这两样。在八十年代的时候,因为长江受到污染等原因,大闸蟹是非常贵的,当时的人均月收入不到一百块,而螃蟹的价格就能达到一百多块一斤。即使这样,过中秋节的时候我家也还是必须吃一顿螃蟹,在我们家看来,过中秋不吃一顿螃蟹,这一年的日子过得没有尊严。甚至当时为了中秋能吃上一顿螃蟹,全家人要省吃俭用一个月,这一个月里甚至连肉都不吃了,哪怕到时候,咱们能吃上几只螃蟹腿每年也得吃上,可见螃蟹在咱们江南人生活中的重要地位。

 

 

现在螃蟹要便宜多了。在南京的水产批发市场上,上等螃蟹均价大概只有一百块一斤。以现在人平均月薪几千的水平看,这个价格比八十年代便宜了不止几十倍,而且从螃蟹产量增加的趋势看,其价格会变得越来越便宜。这里面的原因很简单,因为从九十年代开始,螃蟹的人工育苗问题就得到了解决,大面积的人工养殖成为可能。而且螃蟹对生存环境的要求不是很高,农户在自己地里挖个池塘就能养。我这次中秋回家发现,江苏很大一部分农民都在养螃蟹。所以在可见的未来,我们仍然可以大饱长江螃蟹的口福。

 

 

爱吃刀鱼的人就没这么幸运了。刀鱼的鲜美可以说难用笔墨形容,也曾经可以相对便宜地飞入寻常百姓家。但是这几年来,爱吃刀鱼的人可能就没口福了,或者必须要付出极其惊人的代价才能吃一顿刀鱼。我在水产市场上观察到,一斤刀鱼的价格要以千元计,而且非常难买到,整个市场上就那么几条。这样的高价对普通人家来说是不能承受的,难怪有网友惊呼,建议将长江刀鱼正式列入奢侈品的行列。

 

 

为什么螃蟹能越吃越多,刀鱼却越吃越少呢?这与刀鱼的生长习性有关。刀鱼是一种性情比较生猛的鱼,一出水就死;同时刀鱼还有一个特点,是它在不同的生长阶段需要不同的饵料。这两个特点决定了刀鱼只能在面积比较大的水域中放养,而不适合用网箱密集养殖。但是放养也有问题,不像螃蟹跑不出自己挖的池塘,放养的刀鱼是可以自由游动的,我撒了鱼苗之后也不能保证刀鱼长大之后会不会被别人捞走,因此产权的保护就成了一个难题。

 

 

从这个角度讲,刀鱼就有点类似于公共产品(public goods)的性质。没有哪个私人机构愿意冒着产权被侵犯的风险放养刀鱼苗,所以私人投资无法解决刀鱼贵的难题。那照理说政府应该为公共服务负责,可以采取保护刀鱼的生存环境、定期撒放刀鱼苗等措施。但中国政府的问题是,如果一项公共服务有利可图,比如像高速公路,政府还勉强有投资的积极性,但像保护刀鱼这种不能直接获益的项目,政府往往没有动力去做。发放牌照好像是一个可行的办法,但问题也多多。比如如何能把刀鱼从其它鱼类中分离出来,又比如如何能防止相关部门的政府官员借此大搞灰色税收等等。

 

 

从刀鱼的困境,我们可以看到中国社会里一个具有共性的问题。一方面,凡是私人投资可以积极发挥作用的领域,产品的价格就能越来越便宜。比如电冰箱、电视机等产品,也包括螃蟹,在八十年代价格奇高,但随着供给越来越高,价格降得飞快。另一方面,在私人投资风险较高,同时政府又无利可图的领域,老百姓急需的公共产品却越来越短缺。刀鱼的故事仿佛像一个隐喻,折射出了中国社会里一些不那么敏感,但却非常尖锐的矛盾。

The Yangtze River has given two culinary delicacies to the people of Jiangnan: crab and pike. I remember eating pike in spring, and crab during the mid-autumn festival when I was a child living in my old Nanjing home where these two delicacies were bound to grace our dining table every year. Big Sluice Crab (also known as Chinese Mitten Crab and Shanghai Hairy Crab) was very costly in the 1980s due to river pollution and other reasons. The average monthly wage then was less than one hundred yuan, but crab could cost more than a hundred yuan a kati. Still, we had to have a meal of crab during the mid-autumn festival, otherwise it would seem as though my family had not passed the year with dignity. My family would live frugally, and even forgo eating pork for a whole month, just so that we could have at least a few crab legs during the mid-autumn festival. This is how immensely important crab is in Jiangnan people’s lives.

Crab is much cheaper now. The average price of premium grade crab in Nanjing’s seafood wholesale market is only about one hundred yuan per kati. This is more than a tenfold decrease from 1980 prices relative to the current average monthly wage of several thousand yuan. We can expect prices to fall further due to higher crab yields resulting from large-scale farming which is possible because complications of artificial propagation have been resolved since the 1990s. Further, crab does not require exacting living conditions and can survive in ponds created by farmers, which is why most Jiangsu farmers breed crab, as I discovered when I was home for the mid-autumn festival. So, we will probably still have the good fortune to feast on Yangtze River crab to our hearts’ content in the foreseeable future.

Pike lovers are not so fortunate. It has been said that pike’s delectable taste is difficult to describe in writing. Like crab, it quickly found its way into common citizens’ homes because of relatively low prices. But gourmets who want their pike may be out of luck these few years unless they pay shocking prices. I gathered during my survey of the seafood wholesale market that besides being scarce, with only a few on sale, pike also cost as much as about a thousand yuan a kati. The ordinary consumer cannot possibly afford such a price. No wonder some netizens have voiced their alarm, and suggested that Yangtze River pike be officially listed as a luxury good.

Why is there more and more crab to eat, yet fewer and fewer pike? This is related to pike’s growth habits and characteristics. Pike is an energetic and peculiar fish. It dies once it leaves water, and it needs different fish-feed during various stages of its growth. That is why it must be bred in larger bodies of water for it to feed and swim freely. It is not suited to congested pens, in contrast to crab that can be safely confined in farm ponds. Safeguarding a pike owner’s property rights is problematic though because after releasing fish fries, he cannot be sure if they will be poached when they mature.

From this point of view, pike is similar to a public good. Without a private entrepreneur willing to risk having his property rights violated, private investors cannot resolve the contentious issue of high prices. Hence, it would be reasonable to expect the government to take charge of protecting pike’s habitats, releasing fry regularly, and implementing other measures to benefit the public. However, although the Chinese government may reluctantly invest in financially promising public projects such as highways, it is usually not motivated to participate in projects such as pike protection that do not offer direct profits. Issuing licences is a feasible solution, but it can lead to many other issues too. How, for instance, can pike be distinguished from other fish, and how can officials from relevant government departments be prevented from using this as an excuse to impose questionable and discretionary taxes, and so on?

From the difficult straits of the pike market, we can notice a general trend in Chinese society. As long as private investment has positive spin-offs, the price of the product will decline progressively. For instance, in the 1980s, prices of refrigerators, television sets, and other goods, including crab, were high, but prices fell rapidly when supplies expanded. Conversely, when private investment is both relatively risky and not financially rewarding to the government, even products needed by ordinary citizens will be increasingly scarce. The subject of pike is a case in point of apparent contradictions within Chinese society. While not being that touchy, they are, nevertheless, very real concerns.

1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

adminreply
August 3, 2018 at 4:09 am

Original translation by Piecemeals

Leave a reply