China Expedition – June 2016

Ian traveled to Qingdao in June 2016 to meet with a collaborator, Qiang Xu (Chinese Academy of Sciences), and to visit aquaculture facilities in Shandong Province. Below is taken from blog posts.

After arriving and clearing customs, Ian met his host, Professor Qiang Xu. Prof Xu has been working on sea star wasting disease in China since 2015, when he noted the appearance of disease lesions on animals near aquaculture ponds. Ian and Qiang had conversed many times by email and Elliot has been performing viral metagenomics on samples that Qiang had sent.

After an hour-long ride in the Institute of Oceanology’s vehicle (driven by Mr. Chen – who kindly chauffeured Ian through the entire trip), Ian arrived and checked into the Wu Sheng Guan Holiday Hotel, near Hoquian Bay. Ian was treated to a quick and highly delicious lunch with Prof Xu before passing out for an hour in the hotel room.

After a short nap (so as not to encourage jet lag) Ian went for a walk to see some local sites. First, Ian walked down to Hoquian Bay and the No. 1 Bathing Beach. This scenic beach is where a large number of chinese tourists come for their vacation. The beach itself is netted to prevent sharks, and what’s amazing is that the nets extend a clear half mile out into the bay, so one can do long-distance ocean swimming from the beach.


The boardwalk also has many souvenir shops along the way, and there is even an Oceanarium (Aquarium) on the far side of the bay. Chinese people are very friendly, and many are keen to practice their English. It was not infrequent that someone would come up to you and say “Hello. Welcome to China” with a broad smile across their face! After the beach Ian went for a walk to the nearby Zhongshen Park, which is where many 2008 Olympic Sailing cultural events were held.


Zhongshen Park and the Jingquiao Television Tower.

Feeling like his feet were like lead bricks, Ian went back to the hotel and slept from 6pm to 4am…

The following morning, Ian was met by Dr. Chengguan Lin, who accompanied him to the Institute for Oceanology Building at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a short walk from the Hotel. The meeting was attended by Prof. Xu, Lin, Dr. Lina Sun, a couple of other faculty and several graduate students from the research group. The meeting began with an overview of the institute and Qingdao region. The institute is home to over 6,000 students from all over china (and several other countries) all performing MS and PhD work on the ocean sciences, across all subdisciplines. They are affiliated with the nearby Ocean University of China and University of Qingdao. The institute is one of the oldest marine laboratories in China, having been established in 1950, and is one of three that are part of the CAS.

Next, Ian gave a seminar about Sea Star Wasting Disease in the US, in which he conveyed new information about the disease that has come to light in the last 6 months. He also provided the first analyses done by Elliot about a densovirus similar to SSaDV that was present in the chinese sea star tissues.

After his talk, Qiang provided a further account about wasting disease in Shandong Province, including showing some amazing time-lapse of sea stars blowing themselves apart. The disease has affected only one main species in the region, Asterias amurensis, and not the common bat star Patiria pectinifera. The disease signs are identical to those in asteriid sea stars in the Pacific Northwest (i.e. Pisaster ochraceus), and, like SSWD in the PNW, Asterias amurensis had experienced a very large population growth over the previous decade but stars are now rare. All disease signs are the same. In Ian’s opinion, SSWD is in China.

After the talk, Ian and the faculty went back to the hotel for a full banquet lunch (delicious), which included many seafood items that are studied in the region, including sea cucumber (this was Ian’s first experience eating a holothurian), urchin, and “sea intestinal” (echiuran worms). All was amazingly delicious!

After lunch, Ian was met by Mr. Chen, a graduate student, Roger and Dr. Lin (and his wife) and traveled by car to the city of Weihai, which is the northeastern most city in Shandong, about 4.5 hrs from Qingdao. During the drive, Ian remarked on impressive infrastructure, including extremely well built and maintained highways, and the very, very large number of windmills. China is embracing clean energy like it’s going out of fashion. There are windmills everywhere, and each house/dwelling has several solar panels. The hotels embrace green alternatives, and there are recycling bins everywhere. It’s impressive to see this massive country go after clean energy so much!

After a long drive, Ian and colleagues met with two of the most senior executives in echinoderm aquaculture. Echinoderms, especially sea cucumbers, are a major commodity in Shandong and coastal China. These long-lived a slow-growing organisms are depleted in coastal areas through fishing, so there has been a great deal of development in their aquaculture. Both are interested in working with scientists to improve the health and productivity of their facilities, with the aim of satisfying market demand for their product. After cha (green tea), we went to a local korean restaurant (Shandong is very close to the Korean peninsula, so there are many koreans living in Weihai and other cities close to the North Korean border).

Ian stayed at the Kowloons Hotel, which had a spectacular view of downtown Weihai.


Downtown Weihai from the hotel at dawn

After a scrumptious breakfast, Ian and the group traveled eastwards to Chengshan, home to a very large aquaculture farm facility. The area is basically a flat low-lying sandy strait, in which the government constructed hundreds (maybe thousands?) of concrete bunker-like aquaculture facilities. They draw water from the adjacent Yellow Sea during high tide. There, Ian met with a facility owner involved in sea cucumber, sea urchin, kelp and octopus culture. After more cha, he viewed the ponds themselves.


Inside the aquaculture facility.

The farmers collect adult wild-caught individuals from nearby waters (or propagate from existing stock), and collect their eggs and sperm when they spawn. They then place these into large concrete tanks with aeration to fertilize for a couple of days before performing 50% water changes. They then introduce settling chambers (basically a stack of plastic corrugated plates arranged into cubes) into the tanks. After another couple of days they perform 100% water changes daily. The spat, which start to grow on the sheets, become visible after a few weeks, and are fed a mixture of ground Laminaria japonicum (kelp) and marine mud. They are harvested at maturity after 3 – 5 years.

Evidently losses of the animals are heavy – almost 95% are lost between the size they are first visible and harvest. This is normally blamed on animal stress, but there are genuine questions about the role of pathogens in this mortality. The facility also cultures urchins, which are fed kelp pieces.

The facility also grows octopii and uses small crab culture to feed them. Overall the facility, which is just one of several hundreds/thousands is impressive in its scope. It would also be a really interesting location to perform microbiological research and has provided Ian with new ideas on sea star culture.

After viewing the facility, the group traveled to another local restaurant where they had another massive buffet of local seafood, all chosen from freshly caught animals. The display of seafood was particularly impressive.

After much food, the group travelled to the small town of Rongcheng, where the group had arranged with local divers to collect sea stars. One of the most striking things about the drive down were the sheer number of trucks carrying kelp (Laminaria japonicum) – massive semi-trailers literally overflowing with the kelp. It is clearly an important harvest for the region and China on the whole.


Kelp overflowing a truck!

On arrival to Roncheng, Dr. Lin left the dock with the port manager and local divers to take measurements of water temperature, pH and salinity. This was the first time they had surveyed this site since earlier in the year, when sea stars were abundant. However, the divers had to search for over an hour to locate even a single sea star. Meanwhile Ian and Roger chatted about life in China and discussed potential ideas for furthering the collaboration.

After the hunt, divers retrieved a total of 3 sea stars; two large Asterias amurensis, and one Patiria pectinifera, all of which were healthy. The overall abundance of sea stars being so depleted, it is comforting to see such large and apparently healthy animals, but one wonders what will happen to them as the season progresses.


After sampling the group proceeded back to Qingdao. The trip took 5 hrs, since it was a Friday night and in the city of 6.8 million people (where car ownership is 1 per family) traffic can be intense. Roger joked that the East-West expressway was really the East-West Parking Lot. Back in the lab, Roger froze the collected stars. Ian fell asleep at 8pm, still feeling the effects of jet lag.

The following morning, Ian had breakfast at the hotel before Roger and Mr. Chen accompanied him to Qingdao Airport, which takes about an hour. Arriving early, the group had lunch (chinese mackerel dumplings) before Ian made the very short flight to Seoul.

Publications from this Expedition:

Hewson I, Sullivan B, Jackson EW, Xu Q, Long H, Lin C, Quijano Cardé EM, Seymour J, Siboni N, Jones MRL, Sewell MA (2019) “Perspective: Something old, something new? Review of wasting and other mortality in Asteroidea (Echinodermata)” Frontiers in Marine Science