Ecuador makes quick shift to diversify its shrimp export strategy

Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for Ecuador’s USD 3.6 billion (EUR 3 billion) shrimp export market was bleak. Besides dealing with a severe health crisis at home, China – a market to which about three-quarters of Ecuador’s shrimp was being sent – began restricting imports from the South American country over fears that the novel coronavirus could be transmitted on frozen seafood packaging. However, judging from the latest export numbers from Ecuador’s National Chamber of Aquaculture (CNA), it appears Ecuador has been able to pivot, diversify, and strengthen its shrimp export business.

During the month of April, Ecuador hit an all-time high in export value and volume, shipping over USD 404 million (EUR 332 million) and 167 million pounds, or 75,873 metric tons (MT), respectively, of shrimp abroad. The record was set even with an average price of USD 2.42 (EUR 1.98) per pound for the month, compared to a two-year high of USD 2.69 (EUR 2.20) per pound in November 2019.

Of the total, 82 million pounds (37,194 MT) were sent to China in April 2021, a drop of 21.4 percent when compared to the 104 million pounds (47,173 MT) sent in April 2020. In value terms, Ecuador’s exports fell 24.6 percent to USD 193 million (EUR 158 million), from USD 256 million (EUR 210 million) in April 2020. In terms of volume, the Chinese market still represented a significant 49 percent of all of Ecuador’s shrimp exports, compared to 82 percent in April 2020.

In turn, Ecuador’s shrimp exports to the United States in value and volume terms rocketed 347 percent and 352 percent to USD 92.2 million (EUR 75.7 million) and 36.2 million pounds (16,420 MT), respectively. In April the U.S. market increased its weighting for Ecuadorian shrimp exports to 22 percent, compared to just 6 percent in the same month of 2020.

Similarly, shrimp shipments to France surged 197 percent in dollar terms to USD 22.7 million (EUR 18.6 million) and 216 percent in volume to nine million pounds (4,082 MT), increasing its weighting to 5 percent from 2 percent in April 2020. Exports to Spain increased 70 percent and 83 percent to USD 19.8 million (EUR 16.2 million) and 8.7 million pounds (3,946 MT), respectively, with a 1 percentage point increase in volume to 5 percent. In fact, trade increased with 34 of the other 42 countries which with Ecuador did business in April; Its shrimp exports to Portugal and Guatemala basically remained flat.

For the first four months of the year, Ecuadorian shrimp exports to China have decreased 39 percent in value and 32 percent in volume to USD 470 million (EUR 386 million) and 208 million pounds (94,346 MT), respectively. Meanwhile, in January through April, Ecuador’s shrimp exports to the U.S. more than doubled when compared to the same period one year ago, to USD 300 million (EUR 246 million) and 120 million pounds (54,431 MT).

In comparing the first four months of 2021 versus 2020, the percentage of Ecuadorian shrimp that ended up in China declined to 39 percent from 64 percent, while the U.S. share of Ecuadorian shrimp exports increased to 23 percent from 12 percent. Europe’s take was up to 23 percent versus 19 percent in 2020, and the “rest of Asia” region jumped to 11 percent from 3 percent.

The scenario is a far cry from just July of last year, when Ecuadorian authorities were scrambling to find what they called “joint solutions” with China in the COVID-driven shrimp saga, insisting on the shrimp companies’ “great biosecurity work responding to COVID” and having signed a strategic cooperation agreement with China’s Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute to increase international cooperation on shrimp aquaculture biosecurity.

Since then, Ecuador’s government has reached out to seafood industry financial firm Lighthouse Finance to solicit help in making the shift to supply the U.S.

Lighthouse Seafood Advisors is “looking at supporting the Ecuadorian government to develop solutions for the industry,” including introducing smaller-sized shrimp than that preferred in China, to help it become more competitive in the U.S. market, and “we already have a few projects going strongly ahead,” Lighthouse Seafood Advisors Partner Rahul Kulkarni told SeafoodSource earlier this month.

While India has been the predominant shrimp exporter to the U.S., the country is currently struggling with a severe COVID-19 crisis of its own, and its shrimp exports to the U.S. have fallen. Meanwhile, “the stocking price in Ecuador will always be lower than India because of the way their farms are structured,” Kulkarni said. “Ecuador is now looking hard at the U.S.A. as a larger market. It’s seriously rethinking the structure of farming models, and that also means it’s having to look at new farming technologies, like [recirculating aquaculture systems], where they’ll be able to take more crops in a year, harvest more often, and come out with smaller sizes, in order to be competitive in supplying the U.S. market.”

At the same time, since 2018 the Sustainable Shrimp Partnership (SSP) – founded by leading Ecuadorian shrimp firms including Songa, Grupo Almar, Omarsa, Naturisa, Grupo Lanec, Promarisco-Grupo Nueva Pescanova – has created a powerful marketing and promotion board, touting Ecuador’s shrimp as safe and sustainable.

The SSP Advisory Board, formed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), together with the Colombian Institute of Technical Standards and Certification (ICONTEC), developed one of the most demanding protocols for shrimp production. SSP members commit to best production practices, including constant verification during each production cycle to ensure zero use of antibiotics, full traceability using blockchain technology under the IBM Food Trust ecosystem, and no negative impact on the local environment.

Ecuador’s shrimp industry production has climbed steadily over the past decade, from 322 million pounds (146,056 MT) in 2010, representing USD 753 million (EUR 618 million) in exports, to 1.49 billion pounds (675,852 MT) in 2020, representing USD 3.6 billion (EUR 2.9 billion). It is the country’s second-largest export after oil.

Photo courtesy of PedroFabricio68/Shutterstock


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