Changes in Chinese export patterns will affect global markets

Published on
April 10, 2017

The composition of China’s seafood exports is changing, as the twin pressures of rising costs and growing domestic consumption have altered the scale and nature of the country’s markets and production.

Increasingly, high-value freshwater species grown in China are remaining within the country, while China’s exports are staying in Asia, rather than traveling overseas to the United States, the latest data from China’s Agricultural Ministry reveals.

Evidence of the first trend can be seen in Chinese crab exports, which fell 10 percent in volume and 12.5 percent in value terms last year. The country’s eel and tilapia exports were also down – 7.42 percent and 6.07 percent in volume, respectively – according to China’s Agricultural Ministry.

It’s hard to blame Chinese seafood producers for wanting to derive more of their incomes from the domestic market, as the average price of China's aquatic products in 2016 rose an astonishing 80 percent on the equivalent average price in 2006. 

China likely became the biggest seafood import market in 2016, expected to represent 38 percent of global seafood consumption by 2030, according to the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization. But this may ultimately mean tighter supply and higher prices for seafood consumers beyond China. 

The growth in exports, meanwhile, is coming from a region which is best placed to service the emerging Asian markets, rather than traditional Western markets. Located near Taiwan and well-connected to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states, Fujian Province has been using its geographical advantages to expand sales and copper, as well as securing its position as China’s top seafood exporting region. Fujian’s exports rose by 9.25 percent and 6.56 percent, respectively, in value and volume terms in 2016. 

The second-most important exporting region, Shandong Province – which has long been a processing center for raw material – saw its export volumes rise year-on-year by 3.39 percent and 4.34 percent, respectively. 

There is an indication that seafood production is becoming more centralized in China as lower-volume regions concentrate on the domestic market. Fujian and Shandong together for the first time accounted for more than 50 percent of China’s overall seafood exports. 

There is strong evidence that Chinese crab exports are declining as freshwater seafood-producing regions are now switching to domestic sales. Having once hailed its export potential, Hebei Province saw its seafood exports fall 26.92 percent year-on-year in 2016, as more of production was diverted to domestic consumption. 

Elsewhere, export volume of tilapia from Guangxi province – which had staked much on the potential of tilapia production – dropped 22.08 percent and 25.97 percent, respectively. 

Interestingly, the one region seeing growth in its export processing trade is the northern province of Jilin. The province's exports of aquatic products increased by 12.8 percent year-on-year and 20.03 percent in 2016. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the province’s location along the border with Russia. China has emphasized its intention to expand sales of processed foodstuffs into Russia and to former eastern bloc states, through Russia. 

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