China's growing appetite for luxury seafood will push up prices

Mark Godfrey says Chinese consumers' rising demand will benefit Western producers but consumers will have to pay more

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 2:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 2:08pm

Ambitious fish farming plans will increase seafood production significantly in western European nations like Ireland, Scotland and Norway. But the expansion is not because locals are eating more fish. Rather, it's to meet rising Chinese demand for high-end species that Ireland, Norway and Scotland are all seeking to expand salmon farms off their coasts. French companies, meanwhile, are seeking licences to breed oysters on Ireland's Atlantic coastline to meet demand in China.

Rising incomes have fuelled the appetite for luxury seafood in China. And it's not just European aquaculture that aims to cash in. Traders in Cape Town pay agents to gather lobsters from the beaches of remote African countries before shipping them live through air freight hubs such as Dubai.

On the other side of the planet, vessels leave Argentine ports to hunt for cold water red shrimp which have become a favourite of diners in China. Further north on the Latin American continent, in Ecuador, shrimp farmers are building aerated ponds to breed ever-greater numbers of shrimp for the big seafood producers like Omarsa SA. The firm used to sell 90 per cent of its production to the US but, in the past decade, China has emerged as the No2 market. It may soon become No1.

With polluted and overfished waters at home, China is importing more seafood. Wealthier Chinese consumers who can afford to avoid scandal-plagued chicken and pork have in some cases switched to seafood. Long the world's top producer and exporter of seafood, China is set to be the world's biggest market for seafood in 2016, according to the UN-run Food & Agriculture Organisation.

Obviously there may not be enough fish in the sea to satisfy global demand in the face of rising Chinese demand. But there has been a trade-off of sorts, with China buying premium Western seafood and in return shipping cheap, farmed species to Europe and the US, where supermarkets are selling huge quantities of frozen white fish like tilapia and catfish.

The trade-off may work - but the Westernisation of the Chinese diet means export-focused tilapia producers are also developing domestic markets.

Meanwhile, China's competitive advantages as a base for low-cost species like tilapia are fading as wages rise and access to land and water becomes more difficult for local fish farms.

China is the world's biggest producer of seafood with 64.5 million tons in 2014 - more than 48 million tons of that came from fish farming or aquaculture. Growth in output has fallen significantly from the double-digit rates of the 1980s and 1990s when China piled into fish farming as a profitable export business with the potential to create lots of rural jobs.

As Chinese consumption rises, the price paid by diners globally will rise. Possible qualifiers include the ability of satellite states in Southeast Asia to increase production - though increased prosperity in Asean has made the region an increasingly attractive market for processed Chinese seafood exports - creating competition for Western buyers.

Ultimately, the big beneficiaries from China's rising consumption of seafood will be those oyster and salmon producers around the world. Everyone else will have to get used to paying more for their fish.

Mark Godfrey writes about the seafood trade in China for US-based Seafoodsource.com