China’s tilapia exporters slow volumes to US as competition tightens

Published on
January 3, 2014

China’s tilapia producers are worried about competition from other low price fish like basa and cod in key markets like the U.S. But they’re much more bullish about alternative export markets like Iran and Mexico.

A report produced by China Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Association (CAPPMA) puts frozen tilapia shipments in the first three quarters of 2013 at 270,000 metric tons (MT) and USD 930 million (up 6.7 percent and 16 percent respectively compared to the same period in 2012) and predicts a full-year figure of 370,000 MT and USD 1.3 billion. The report notes that while production and exports have continued to increase for the past decade, future increases in volume will be muted.

The U.S. accounted for 42 percent of shipments in that period, down from 48 percent in the same period in 2012. Shipments to Mexico meanwhile rose from 10 percent to 14 percent of the total and while both volumes shipped to the EU and Russia remained flat in the period, there was a jump from 29 percent to 31 percent in volumes headed to “other” countries. These include Iran and the Cote d’Ivoire.

American consumption of frozen fish filets is rising but 80 percent of volume came from three south American nations: Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras. Meanwhile, shipments of bassa (catfish) from Vietnam rose 6 percent to 78,000 MT from January to August while tilapia shipments dropped 6.5 percent to 113,000 MT in the January to September period.

Cheaper supplies of cod and hake in key export markets will also impact tilapia demand, predicts CAPPMA chief Cui He. He’s worried also about weaker per capita consumption of seafood in the U.S. — down 4 percent in 2013, he claims. But this will hurt shrimp and tuna consumption more than demand for low-cost white fish like tilapia, he predicts.

Other countries are emerging as tilapia producers: Egypt, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Brazil are all increasing their volumes according to the CAPPMA report. Yet it singles out Brazil and Indonesia as particularly fast growing in tilapia cultivation and processing. Indonesia has vowed to increase its tilapia cultivation from 567,078 MT in 2011 to 1.1 million MT in 2013.

A ruinous year in 2012 — foul weather, disease and low prices — contrived to drive many tilapia farmers out of the sector. That was particularly the case in Hainan, though volumes remain stable in four other key producing provinces: Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan.

Indications are that tighter pond volumes will force tilapia processors to raise prices, which this week varied from CNY 4 to CNY 5.2 per 500 grams (g) (prices vary according to fish weights, which tend to range from 300 to 500 grams) according to data from Shui Chan Pindao, a Chinese seafood producers data network. Factories surveyed said they saw supply in January tightening in key production zones like Hainan.

Development of the Chinese demand ranks top of a five-point development strategy set by CAPPMA. Other goals include improvements in quality and traceability as well as better branding and product diversification. “Improved international cooperation” is also an aim of the strategy.

Shipments of frozen fillets — which make up nearly 50 percent of the total Chinese tilapia exports — rely on the U.S. to absorb 60 percent of volume. In 2012 exports also increased to Russia and Ukraine and into relatively new markets such as Iran (up 241 percent) and Kazakhstan (up 124 percent) in 2012.

Rising labor costs remain a burden for Chinese tilapia exporters: data from China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, which has projected an average 18.4 percent increase in minimum wages in 22 Chinese provinces in 2013. 

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