Seafood’s changing tide

Seafood’s changing tide Recent analysis indicates shifts taking place within the seafood market’s dynamics. Photo: Norwegian Seafood Council

While the global seafood trade is expected to continue to grow, recent analysis points to shifts in the market dynamics, writes Jason Holland.

One hundred and fifty-three billion dollars. That’s the latest estimated traded value of seafood products globally, with a current annual growth rate of around 4%, according to the most recent seafood trade map and report compiled by Rabobank International. While both demand and supply are expected to continue to rise, the multinational financial company’s ‘World Seafood Map 2019’ anticipates that current issues such as global trade tensions and uncertainties, emerging aquaculture techniques, and biosecurity risks in animal protein production will increasingly shape and reshape global seafood flows in the future.

Not surprisingly, China continues to be the number one seafood exporter in volume and value with around 4.2 million tonnes of products generating overseas sales in excess of $20 billion (€17.7 billion) in 2017. It’s followed by Norway in second place with 2.5 million tonnes earning more than $11 billion (€9.8 billion). Rabobank’s analysis confirms that both countries added more than $2 billion (€1.8 billion) to their seafood exports in the five years between 2012 and 2017, but that there was only a minor increase in the volumes shipped.

In the upcoming years, China and Norway are expected to keep their positions as the main seafood exporting nations, but that there will be a slower growth rate in Chinese seafood exports. Indeed the country is becoming an increasingly important importer, bringing in close to 5 million tonnes of products worth more than $14 billion (€12.4 billion). At present, the domestic requirement for seafood and increased consumption is spiking due to the African Swine Fever (ASF) situation in China's pork production. While in the background, the country’s demand for imported and particularly premium seafood is building due to increasing purchasing power and food safety concerns over local production in the market.

The EU is still the largest importer of fish and shellfish, and it increased its imports by $4 billion (€3.5 billion) from 2012 to 2017, while the second largest seafood importer, the United States, also imported more seafood in the last five years, with an increase amounting to $5 billion (€4.4 billion).

With China increasing its seafood imports by more than $3 billion (€2.7 billion), it’s expected to soon overtake third-placed Japan, which imported 2.4 million tonnes of products worth $15 billion (€13.3 billion). Rabobank analyst Behyhan de Jong, who compiled the analysis, explained that Japan’s imports were already on a decreasing trend due to such demographics as an aging population.

Rabobank further found that the value increase in the EU, the US, and China is predominantly driven by increased salmon and crustacean imports.

Consumption patterns

The map illustrates that the strong dependence on imports among the main seafood consuming markets will continue for the foreseeable future. The EU produced around 6.6 million tonnes of seafood in 2015 but consumed more than 12.3 million tonnes of products, resulting in a net import trade of 5.7 million tonnes. Rabobank forecasts that while EU production will increase to 6.7 million tonnes by 2020 and to 6.8 million tonnes by 2025, its consumption will also rise by relatively similar amounts.

In the US, seafood consumption is expected to rise from a level of almost 8.6 million tonnes in 2015 to more than 9 million tonnes in 2020 and 9.3 million tonnes in 2025. Over the same decade its production is expected to decline by around 100,000 tonnes to less than 5.4 million tonnes, making it a net trade importer to the tune of almost 4 million tonnes.

China’s production, meanwhile, is forecast to grow from 64.6 million tonnes (2015) to 69.5 million tonnes by 2020 and 74.7 million tonnes by 2025, during which time its consumption will increase from 61.3 million tonnes to 70.4 million tonnes, giving it a positive net trade of almost 4.3 million tonnes in 2025. Again, though, there are clear signs of change. Seafood eating in China is traditionally concentrated in the urban areas of south and southeastern coastal regions, but with increasing urbanisation, the development of e-commerce and cold chain infrastructure improvements, seafood consumption is now increasing everywhere. Furthermore, while freshwater fish, including carp species, are the most consumed type of seafood, followed by molluscs, the consumption pattern is shifting, whereby consumers are developing an interest for the more premium and imported seafood species. In line with these increased demand and supply constraints, China’s large net trade surplus can therefore be expected to reduce in the long-term.

Trade drivers

The analysis finds that in value terms, currently the largest trade flow continues to be from Norway to the EU, and this mainly consists of salmon and some whitefish. This is followed by salmon and crustaceans from Canada and flows of whitefish and crustaceans from China to the US.

From 2013 to 2017, the crustacean trade increased globally, with the US, the EU and China increasing their imports of these products. India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico and Ecuador have been the main suppliers due to higher and more efficient production in these regions.Likewise, the salmon trade increased globally due to demand growth.For example, Chile has doubled its salmon exports to China over the last four years. In fact, all salmon producers, and particularly Norway, increased their exports to all consumer regions.

Whitefish still has the largest traded volumes, though, and this position is expected to remain stable despite changes in the trade patterns. This category consists of farmed and wild-caught species. Also, a big portion of this trade flow includes China’s re-exports of processed whitefish from Russia. In comparison to 2013, China’s whitefish exports – mainly tilapia – to the US have dropped by 33%. However, Vietnam filled this gap by increasing its exports to the US, which is dominated by pangasius.

Due to improved supply conditions in Peru, the fishmeal and fish oil trade has increased in the last four years. Driven by its large aquaculture industry, China remains the largest consumer of these products. The relatively higher prices of fishmeal and fish oils have also led to a value increase in trade flows. In 2017, for example, more than 1 million tonnes of Peruvian fishmeal was exported with a value of $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion), up from 600,000 tonnes worth $1 billion (€888 million) a year previously. China accounted for 80% of this trade.

Aquaculture overtakes wild-catch

Acknowledging that production from the wild-catch sector is “flat”, while aquaculture keeps growing, Rabobank expects the future growth in seafood to continue to come from the farmed sector, which will be driven by improved genetics, new husbandry technologies, innovations in aquafeed, and the switch to more efficient and intensive farming technologies.

In 2020, the volumes from aquaculture production are expected to exceed 90,000 tonnes, thereby surpassing the volumes from wild-catch seafood. Crucially though, while the overall harvest will still continue to increase, aquaculture’s growth rate is expected to slow down in comparison to the last decade, said de Jong.

“In the future, we might even see farming of different seafood categories growing. Aquaculture will keep its importance as a contributor to global seafood trade,” she said.

All large seafood categories are expected to grow in the coming years, forecasts Rabobank. Although the growth will be strongest with crustacean and freshwater fish farming in developing economies in Asia, South America, and to a limited extent, Africa. Salmon production will continue to grow, mainly in value terms, in Europe, Canada, Australia and Chile.

New influences

While the analysis expects seafood to hold on to its rank as one of the world’s most in demand and traded food categories, it suggests that the further growth of farmed seafood consumption will come at the expense of wild-catch seafood. It explains that the increase in trade in recent years has been primarily driven by farmed species, consisting of high-value premium crustaceans and marine species and lower-value whitefish species traded from Southeast Asia to western countries.

Rabobank anticipates that this trend will continue, and also that large seafood consumers such as China, where supply can’t keep up with demand, will keep importing more seafood products. However, it also believes that trade dynamics and routes likely to change in the upcoming years, due to influences such as increased protectionism, current uncertainties in trade relations among several trade partners such as Brexit and the U.S.-China trade war, the growing aquaculture sector in different parts of the world with new technologies like land-based and offshore farming​, and biological challenges in the animal protein sector, including the aforementioned African swine fever crisis, which is expected to lead to production losses of 25-35% in China alone this year.

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