By Mark Godfrey, SeafoodSource contributing editor reporting from Beijing, China
Published on 28 April, 2013
Weaker demand from Japan — in part due to a weaker yen — is damaging China’s exports of eels to its neighbor. In the first two months in 2013, China exported 585 tons of fresh eel, down 42.6 percent compared to 2012. The average export price, at USD 36.68 (EUR 28) per kilogram, declined 14.6 percent year-over-year.
According to statistics from China’s Customs authorities, in February 2013 China exported 258 tons of fresh eel, down 21.1 percent on January and down 53.1 percent year-over-year. The average export price was USD 36.58 (EUR 27.9) per kilogram. Several eel exporters selling their product on the Alibaba online trading platform told SeafoodSource that they’ve been hurt by Japanese economic policy which has weakened the value of the Yen, making imports more expensive.
Indeed the figures are consistent with data that showed Japanese seafood imports during the month of February, including fishmeal, dropped 1.9 percent to 171,573 metric tons (MT), according to Japanese trade data. Categories like yellowfin tuna fell 30.4 percent while salmon/trout was down 17.1 percent.
It’s a similar downbeat picture for the lucrative roasted eel trade. Trade newswire China Eel Net, quoting Japanese Customs, claimed China in February 2013 exported 660 tons of roasted eel to Japan, down 33 percent compared to the same period last year. Strained relations between China and Japan has hurt trade, yet data suggests the slump in eel shipments isn’t limited to China: shipments from Taiwan in March totaled 60 tons, only 40.4 percent of the figure shipped in the same period in last year, according to Cai Qiutang, chairman of Taiwan Eel Export Association.
Major Chinese shippers to Japan include Guangnan Holdings. The company estimates that Japan consumes 120,000 MT of eels every year, with two-thirds of that figure imported. About 35,000 MT come from China and another 30,000 MT from Taiwan according to Guangnan whose chairman Sun Guan said China would eventually become the biggest eel producer in the world thanks to lower labor costs than Japan or Taiwan.
Challenged by a shortage of clean water production bases at home, China is also processing lower-priced Burmese eel. Eel exports to China soared in 2011 to 2012 the Myanmar Eel Entrepreneurs Association, with the product shipped overland. Myanmar’s eel export prices hit USD 5,140 (EUR 3,927) per ton in July 2012, a record high with the country exporting 10,647 MT of eel in the 2011-12 financial year (ended in March 2012), earning USD 40.34 million (EUR 30.8 million), up from USD 23.48 million (EUR 17.9 million) from 7949 MT in the previous financial year. Over 75 percent of Burmese eels went to the southerly province of Guangdong.
Guangdong is the home base of the Guangdong Kingman Group, which has a six percent share of the Japanese imported eel market, produced 3,500 MT of roasted eels last year. Claiming a 10 percent profit margin, Sun planned to acquire eel farming bases in China with 70 percent of output destined for export markets.
The downturn in Japanese demand may be compensated by a surge in domestic consumption as Japanese restaurant chains continue to expand in China. Known in Chinese as man yu, eel is a draw for fine diners in Beijing restaurants like Nadaman, a Tokyo-based high-end chained which operates an outlet in Beijing’s China World Summit hotel. Serving sushi, sashimi and teppanyaki. Japanese management at the busy restaurant showed SeafoodSource a menu of eel dishes with prices ranging from CNY 250 (USD 41, EUR 31) to CNY 600 (USD 97, EUR 74).
Strained relations between China and Japan have often had, mostly short-term, negative effects on trade. Politics clearly remains an issue for China’s seafood industry, which remains dependent on fry imported from the Philippines and Taiwan. Head of the Eel Association of Guangdong Province, Tian-Xiong Zhou, pointed out at a recent eel cultivators conference that the term “Philippine eel” is “inappropriate since those eels are cultivated in the South China Sea islands and its waters has always been China, this sea eel fry should be called the South China Sea eel."
Eel production is concentrated in Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangxi provinces, and much of the production is destined for the Japanese market. Eel fishing in main production areas in Guangdong and Fujian provinces in late spring moves northwards to Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, Jiangsu and Shanghai.