Lobster remains on top in China markets
The lobster sector was in a mostly buoyant mood with stable Chinese demand and solid prices for exporters of premium western product at Seafood Expo Asia in Hong Kong.
“We have had a good year so far, and now we’re entering our traditional mid-Autumn festival [traditional Chinese holiday] busy period and prices are similar to last year,” according to Nathan Maxwell McGinn, marketing manager at the Australia-based Craig Mostyn Group, which ships 90 percent of its lobsters to China and Hong Kong.
Strong Chinese tourist numbers into Australia have helped drive demand for lobsters back in China while the upcoming implementation of a free trade agreement between the two countries is giving Australian seafood exporters reason for optimism, McGinn said. “Country of origin is really important in the Asian and Chinese market,” he said, meaning Chinese buyers associate quality and premium prices with particular countries, such as Australia.
American and Canadian product enjoy a similar reputation for quality in China and sell in larger volumes compared to Australia, which limits the catch of its western and southern rock lobster to about 9,000 metric tons a year. However, a shorter fishing season means demand is outpacing supply so far this year for Maine-based processor and exporter Cozy Harbor. This has contributed to price growth in Asian markets, according to Spencer Fuller, manager for the lobster category at the firm. Demand for lobsters has been robust in part because supply is down due to fishing days lost to severe weather earlier this year, Fuller said. While prices have been steady in Asian markets there has been a noticeable fall-off in queries from smaller-scale mainland Chinese buyers at this year’s seafood expo, noted Fuller. He attributes this to fears over economic growth in China.
China has become a target for Canadian lobster exporters but increased demand from the United States has absorbed much of the supply which might have ended up in Asia. There’s nonetheless a wish to diversify markets and push into China, said Kimberley Watson, director of processing and seafood export at the New Brunswick provincial government – she was representing New Brunswick at the Hong Kong expo. A certain amount of Canadian lobsters are being re-exported to China out of the United States, Watson said, and New Brunswick hopes to insulate its producers against future demand fluctuations in North America by lining up buyers in Asia.
Distributors in Hong Kong offer differing perspectives on market demand for lobsters. Demand for premium products has definitely slowed at the middle end of the market due to economic uncertainty, explained one distributor importing lobsters, fish and shellfish for a local clientele made up largely of restaurants and hotels. “People are unsure right now about the future economic environment in greater China so they have cut back on spending. This affects the premium lobsters like the Australian lobsters … the American lobsters are cheaper so they sell better … But we are selling a lot more fish filets like Pangasius recently compared to lobster.”
At the high end of the market demand for premium seafood products such as lobster has stayed stable for another Hong Kong distributor who focuses on supplying high-end consumption outlets such as business clubs and five-star hotels. “If anything we are seeing demand for oysters, abalone and lobsters has increased, provided it’s a true quality product,” she explained.
Premium buyers in Hong Kong and China remain the focus of new entrants offering premium lobster. Tropical lobsters from the Philippines were introduced to Chinese buyers at the Hong Kong show by Hilario Murillo, chairman of Manila-based Grandcatch Inc. Filipino lobsters typically sell for USD 60 (EUR 54)/kg, said Murillo. He’s hoping that buyers here will be enticed by the manual harvesting methods used to harvest the lobsters.