Virtually unknown to Americans just a decade ago, tilapia is now among the nation's favorite seafood species, ranking fifth in terms of annual consumption at nearly 1 pound per capita. Consumers prize tilapia for its mild, sweet taste, and seafood buyers value its consistent availability and price. But even this durable farmed finfish is susceptible to the trials of Mother Nature, and this year tilapia may not be as accessible and inexpensive as it's been in the past.

China's stormiest winter in half a century clouded this year's tilapia supply picture in the United States, which relies on China for more than half of its total tilapia imports. Almost five months into 2008, the picture is much clearer, but gloomier than anticipated.

China's tilapia production may be down by as much as 80 percent this year, and the shortfall may last for eight to 12 months, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported last week. Consequently, tilapia prices are likely to increase "sharply," though Latin America is expected to bolster its tilapia exports to offset the drop in China, according to the FAO.

"Tilapia producers in mainland China suffered large losses," Norbert Sporns, CEO of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries, said last week after his Seattle company, which operates tilapia farms in China's Hainan province, posted a 17.3 percent increase in first quarter sales. "HQS was very fortunate not to have been more severely affected by the severe winter weather China experienced."

It could've been worse. Hainan and Guangdong provinces in southeast China were spared the brunt of the harsh weather. But Guangxi, just to the west of Guangdong, was among the hardest hit provinces. Hainan, Guangdong and Guangxi represent more than 80 percent of China's tilapia output.

It's apparent that prices of frozen Chinese tilapia fillets, which are currently holding firm at $2.15 to $2.25 a pound, will rise this year once demand catches up to supply. Through March, U.S. frozen tilapia imports from China were actually up 4.7 percent from the same period in 2007, to 52.6 million pounds, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Chinese tilapia shortfall comes at a time when consumers are tightening their purse strings due to the economic slump.

For perhaps the first time ever in the United States, tilapia's market growth will be put to the test.

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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