Inside China’s current tilapia trade

Published on
March 3, 2016

Africa now ranks as China’s second-most valuable tilapia market after the U.S. with a 23.8 percent growth in tilapia exports to the continent in the first half of 2015. While data for the full year hasn’t yet been released, Chinese customs data for the first six months of 2015 show China shipped 45,352 tons of tilapia to Africa with Zambia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Congo ranking as the largest markets on the continent. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of Chinese tilapia grew 6.45 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2015 to reach 71,878 tons.

There’s also been a shift to breaded product in China’s tilapia exports. China’s tilapia shipments grew 3 percent in the first six months of 2015, but there was a 23.8 percent rise in breaded product, while the categories ‘frozen tilapia filets’ and ‘frozen tilapia’ fell 2.27 percent and 1.97 percent as a percentage of overall frozen seafood shipments. The United States is the largest market for Chinese breaded tilapia products, with a 36 percent rise in American purchases of breaded tilapia in the first half of 2015 year-on-year.

There are other bright spots for Chinese exporters. Exports to Iran – long a political ally of China – increased by 5,112 tons in the first half of 2015, an increase of 17 percent year-on-year.

Yet there are challenges. Alternative producing countries in Latin America like Colombia and Honduras are upping their tilapia production and with the economic situation in Latin America decelerating, there will be more output from there. This could endanger China’s hold on the Latin American market, including top customer Mexico, said a sales executive at Hainan-based Xiangtai Fishery, one of China’s larger tilapia firms. Latin America accounted for 12.4 percent of China’s shipments in the first half of 2015.

While China supplied the bulk of 111,509 tons of tilapia imported by the U.S. in the first half of 2015, it is a low-priced market, whereas tilapia from Indonesia and Taiwan command a 60 price premium on product from China.

“Our prices are down by 12 percent in the past two years,” said the executive.

On the positive side, tilapia consumption is on the rise, so there are opportunities, noted an executive at the Taiwanese tilapia firm Grobest, which also has large aquaculture operations in mainland China.

“Supply from Taiwan is slowing and Taiwanese suppliers have the sashimi-grade market in Japan. We need to take that market because it’s so much more valuable,” said the official. “For that to happen China has to improve the quality of its producer … China is a high-volume tilapia producer but it needs to get into high-priced markets. This will only happen by segmenting our output so we start to capture segments like the sashimi market and high-value U.S. restaurant markets.”

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