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Centuries of Chinese seafood demand: What does it mean to your seafood export business?

autoreBy Steve Williamson 20 Oct 2016

The Chinese seafood demand has enormous implications, both on a local level and on the international scene. This is not new; for hundreds of years, the region has affected international fishing trade. Now, China is responsible for a full third of the world’s seafood production, but with waning fish stocks have led to a huge increase in seafood imports.  

But what brought the market to where it is today? Peering into the history of seafood demand in China, it paints an interesting picture about why the region is so fond of the stuff, and what that means for seafood export businesses the world over.

Back in the day...

By at least the 18th and 19th centuries, China had begun to consume more seafood than their shores could produce. Around that time, they began importing seafood via trade with what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, both for quantity and for variety. Among the favourites were bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber), shark fin, and other fin fish.

Now, after hundreds of years of meeting the demand for seafood in China, these areas are finding that they are facing problems of overfishing, and a general lack of sustainability for their products: the very same problems that plagued China, and motivated China to seek new international seafood trade partners.

Drying up

The problems began in the 1980s. At the time, there was little concern about overfishing in Southeast Asia. Outfits were small, with non-motorized boats standard in the industry. Beginning in the late 1990s, fishing outfits in the Philippines and other trade partners began to see signs of a declining fish population.

This shouldn’t have been surprising. With the addition of motorized boats, fish finders and poor fishery management practices, along with an ever-increasing demand from China and Hong Kong, fishing grounds were beginning to wane in productivity.

And yet, more and more individuals were joining the fishing trade. How could this be?

Makin' a living

During this time, the price of seafood was skyrocketing, particularly live seafood. For example, a leopard coral grouper that would have fetched you 50 cents a kilogram in 1980 was being sold for $16-$23 per kilogram by 2011. In addition, there just weren't many other options for the population to make a solid living. Work and industry was scarce, and suddenly here was an opportunity to provide for families.

In fact, there has been an intensification of local fishing industry in many coastal regions of Southeast Asia, and it’s having a significant environmental impact. Historically, overfishing has always been led by an increase in demand of a certain region, or a specific type of seafood. In this case, large amounts of seafood exported from Southeast Asia to China will most definitely take an environmental toll on the region. A toll that, unfortunately, will be paid by Southeast Asia.

Anecdotal and scientific evidence points to the fact that China’s long-standing seafood trade partners are operating at an unsustainable level, that regions in Southeast Asia are starting to see drastic evidence of overfishing, and that China’s demand for quality seafood is only growing.

Opportunity knocks

What does that mean for the international seafood trade? Quite simply, demand for seafood of all varieties is increasing from China, and prices continue to rise steadily. Live, fresh and frozen seafood exporters have the opportunity to fill this need. 

Today, China is seeing marked growth in their economy. In particular their middle class, with an increased disposable income, is seeing an expansion. Generally, the luxury seafood market rises and falls with the overall financial well-being of the region. Now, in a golden age of Chinese wealth, some historical seafood suppliers are unable to meet their needs.

Banquets with huge spreads of high-end seafood are becoming increasingly common among businesses and individuals in China. It’s deeply ingrained in the culture to the point where serving guests rare and expensive delicacies like sea cucumber, geoduck, sea urchin, and swim bladder are considered a sign of status and wealth.

Bring it on in

For these reasons, China is now the world’s largest seafood consumer, and the average individual eats 33 kilograms of it per year, compared to the worldwide average of 18 kilograms. In the years from 1999 to 2009, seafood consumption in China rose by 225%.

The growth in seafood imports has also risen from $3.9 billion in 2009 to $8.4 billion in 2013. According to a report by Caplog Group, some estimate by 2020, China will be importing over $20 billion of seafood from around the world.

Moving forward

Considering China’s history with seafood, the trend has not changed much in the hundreds of years that have passed. The population continues to eat more and higher end seafood, creating a demand that has so far been unsustainable to meet in their own waters. Trade relations with Southeast Asia continue to be good, but those areas are seeing declining seafood stock, and major signs of overfishing.

As in the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s clear that international trade partners now have the opportunity to meet this need.  

For many fisheries with sustainable fishing practices in place and the fast-paced development of new aquaculture technology, countries

will be able to supply both locally and benefit from the large and expanding export market.

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Gfresh team