Producers: Regulations constrain Canada in meeting China demand

Published on
December 17, 2013

Few countries have as solid a national brand recognition in China as that enjoyed by Canada, yet the country may not be able to capitalize on demand in the country.

Cyr Couturier, director at the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance told SeafoodSource that while his members are “getting a lot of interest” from Chinese buyers “a big problem is we can’t produce enough” to meet the demand. Canada’s aquaculture industry has “plateaued” at CAD 900 million (USD 848 million, EUR 616 million) per year. He blames an “antiquated regulatory regime” and said “this has meant we can’t grow the industry.”

Crucially, it remains difficult to get new sites for aquaculture. In British Colombia, opposition from the wild salmon lobby and anti-farming groups have stalled aquaculture growth. “The big challenge with salmon is we have to grow it…demand is there, salmon has gone from a top ten to a top three most consumed seafood product in a remarkably short space of time.”

As Couturier explains it, the Canadian seafood industry was valued at CAD 1 billion (USD 942 million, EUR 684 million) in 2001 and 2002 “but now we lost 40 percent of the salmon market because production has remained the same.” Rising Chinese demand for seafood is timely given the seafood market in North America has dipped in the past years, said Couturier, explaining that 2012 numbers were down a few years in a row. “Overall seafood consumption is down.” Marketing efforts by Canadian authorities in China means the Maple Leaf brand logo is instantly recognizable in China. But while China is proving a big customer but supplying the quantities required can be a challenge. “You can never supply what they want…it’s a volume challenge, particularly as we have existing customers also to supply.”

One of Canada’s leading seafood firms has been tapping China’s taste for exotic seafood such as sea cucumbers. Canadian sea cucumbers are however seen as inferior to the domestic and Japanese product, explained Blaine Sullivan, COO at Ocean Choice. He’s keen to develop sales of Newfoundland sea cucumber but the appearance creates a challenge —“they’re flat whereas local sea cucumbers have spikes”. Japanese sea cucumber is regarded as top of the range — it is smaller, with longer spikes, explained Sullivan, adding that Canadian product has thinner skin but deeper layers of meat. “We have the product: there’s a 2,500 ton quota in Newfoundland to exploit,” he told SeafoodSource.

Ocean Choice’s timing in tapping the Chinese sea cucumber market isn’t great, Sullivan conceded, given the Chinese government’s clamp down on state banqueting and lavish official gifting. But he is confident sea cucumber sales will pick up in China — altogether Ocean Choice is marketing a dozen species in China, among them Greenland halibut.

Sullivan believes there’s been a marked shift in China’s fish market from processing to one of supplying the domestic market, and sees firms like his adapting to this. “Having a good network of own catch and direct relations with fishermen will be important to supplying growing Chinese demand,” he said. Halibut is a hit with Chinese buyers who like the oily nature of the fish while Ocean Choice has also scored good sales of yellowtail flounder.

Marketing efforts by Canadian authorities in China means the Maple Leaf branding logo is instantly recognizable in China. A wave of shellfish brands eager to conquer China include New Brunswick-based Maison Beau Soleil, which is marketing a range of premium-priced oysters specially cultivated in floating bags just below the sea surface. Canada is also keen to build mussels sales in the country, with Prince Edward Island putting in a big push in China.

Meanwhile, Couturier said Canada is starting to see investment from China, so far focused on west Coast shell production — this follows on earlier investment from Taiwan.

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