Growing demand for premium seafood in China
China is a traditional fishing country that accounts for two-thirds of worldwide aquaculture. With the growing middle class and the rise of disposable income, the Chinese purchase a progressively more diverse basket of seafood products and the premium seafood market in China is expanding.
Demand for luxury seafood products has increased significantly in China over the past few years. For example, in 2015, China accounted for approximately 20% of the luxury seafood consumption globally. With polluted and overfished waters at home, China is importing a lot of premium seafood. Wealthier Chinese consumers who can afford to avoid scandal-plagued chicken and pork have in some cases switched to seafood.
Chinese consumers are looking more and more to foreign countries for premium seafood products. For instance, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council, the value of Norwegian salmon exports to China reached $54.8 million in the first half of 2018. This was a rise of 544% year-on-year.
[Data Source: Global Times, ‘Norwegian salmon exports to China’]
Luxury seafood products on the Chinese tables are becoming more easily accessible
The list of premium seafood on the table is becoming longer with the increase of luxury seafood imports to China. According to Eva Kam, Project Manager at Daxue, all the high-end seafood was from Hong Kong before but China has now its own providers in foreign countries. Luxury seafood appreciated by Chinese consumers include lobster, crab, salmon, oysters, sea cucumbers and many others. The luxury seafood consumers are not only rich people but also the emerging middle class in China. The rising incomes and the growing middle class contribute to an attractive outlook to the premium seafood market in China.
Social media contribute to the growing premium seafood consumption
Seafood promotion in China increasingly relies on social media platforms such as Dianping (大众点评) or WeChat (微信). Thanks to the boom of e-commerce in China, consumers can buy their favorite premium seafood on electronic commerce platforms such as Tmall and JD, which are both reputable and reliable operating systems. For example, Canadian lobsters are available on Tmall.com as well as fresh Australian lobsters and oysters too. Chinese consumers can also buy raw oysters on WeChat.
[Australian fresh lobster on Chinese E-Commerce Platform Tmall]
Premium seafood is a seasonal product in China
Imported premium seafood is increasingly taking a place at the Chinese New Year dinner table. Not only are Chinese families spending more on seafood at Chinese New Year, but the variety of imported and premium categories such as lobster and king crab is also increasing. In the past two years, large-scale imports of shrimp, as well as high-end lobster, king crab and salmon have witnessed “explosive growth” during the Chinese New Year. For example, prices for king crab rise by as much as 30 percent before the Chinese New Year.
Baidu index: search frequency for “lobster” peaks during Chinese New Year
Lobster market in China
China’s lobster industry is booming
A new generation of Chinese consumers attaches great importance to health, and they have higher requirements for lobsters. Therefore, the lobster market in China tries to ensure the quality of lobster and sends them to the consumers faster. New refrigeration logistics help to transport lobster to reduce damage and maintain high quality lobster during long-distance transportation. In addition, established tracking systems have created an open and transparent market environment. It helps customers follow the production process from farm to table.
From a national perspective, the main lobster producing areas are the Yangtze River Delta region as well as Hubei, Anhui, Hunan, and Jiangxi provinces.
[Data Source: Baijiahao, ‘Share of lobster production in China’]
According to statistics, yearly lobster consumption in China in 2018 reached 1.3 million tons, an increase of 22.56% from the previous year. 80% of retailers sell lobster through dine-in channels (including supper stalls). 20% of retailers sell lobster through Internet channels.
[Data Source: Aquatic Products Association, Guanyan World Data Center, ‘Lobster market in China’]
Big cities have larger lobster consumption
At present, the consumption of lobster in China has appeared all over the country. In recent years, the consumption of lobster has developed from large cities to the south and northwest China. This progression is due to the development of e-commerce in conjuncton with lobster cooked food products. Currently the lobster market in China in the northwest, south, and northeast regions continues to grow. However, cities such as Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Changsha still have the highest levels of consumption.
Baidu index: searching frequency for “lobster” in Chiense cities
China is the fastest growing market for Boston lobster
The premium seafood market in China is one of the most important for the American lobster industry. In 2016, total US lobster exports to China had reached around 8 million kilograms, valued at $136 million, accounting for 14% of total US lobster exports. In 2018 import of lobster from the US to China reached 1,232 metric tons. However, in 2019 this value was down 91% year-on-year over the period, due to Chinese tariffs.
[Data Source: UCN, ITC, Chinese customs, ‘China’s imports of American lobster’]
The Chinese New Year is the busiest season for the American lobster industry, as demand is growing. China’s monthly lobster imports peak before Chinese New Year. In January 2019, China imported 2.3 metric tons of live or fresh lobster. In February 2018, during the end of the festival, the figure was 2.4 metric tons. This is a rise from January 2017, with 1.9 metric tons.
Increasing consumption of premium seafood in China
Crab market in China
According to statistics, the output of crab reached about 800,000 tons in 2018 in the premium seafood market in China. The industrial scale was 64.8 billion yuan in 2016. It was about 77.8 billion yuan in 2017, with an annual growth rate of about 20%. In 2019 China’s crab market reached 100 billion yuan.
[Data Source: Baijiahao, ‘Market scale of crab industry in China’]
The top ten crab production areas in China are Jiangsu, Anhui, Hubei, Shanghai, Jiangxi, Henan and Taiwan. The total output of Jiangsu accounts for about 44% of the country. Hubei accounts for 22%, Anhui accounts for 13%, and other regions account for 21%.[Data Source: China Business Research Institute, ‘Share of crab production in China’]
Due to the entry of e-commerce giants, the industry scale of crabs is increasing year by year. For example, JD.com adopts the “airline + refrigerated truck” transportation matrix. It adds air routes, airport express lanes and truck transportation routes to ensure that the delivery time of crabs is not more than 48 hours. SF Express sends them directly from multiple lake areas. It opened more than 22,000 shipping directions, ensuring the supply of crabs and safe delivery.
Sea cucumber in the premium seafood market in China
Sea cucumber is a premium product with large popularity in China. Asia is the largest consumer market of sea cucumber in the world, with a market share of more than 70%, followed by North America.
The Chinese sea cucumber industry shows an overall stable trend. Farm-gate prices have continued on an upward trend in the past two years. Production volumes and stocked amounts have also increased significantly. The growth in consumption of sea cucumbers increased from 3.8 million tons in 2014 to 4.1 million tons in 2018. By 2025 the consumption of sea cucumbers in China will be around 5.9 million tons.[Data Source: Chyxx, ‘China’s sea cucumber consumption’]
Caviar industry in China
With the development of China’s economy and improvement of living standards, the caviar industry has also developed rapidly. By the end of 2014, there were 63 sturgeon farming units in China, including 40 raw sturgeon farming units. From 2006 to 2012, China’s production of artificially cultured caviar increased from 0.7 tons to 28.8 tons, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 85%.
In 2018, world caviar output reached 271 tons, while China’s caviar output was around 100 tons. China plans to rely on artificially cultured sturgeon to become the main exporter of caviar in the world.
Oysters industry in China
Chinese consumers are more and more demanding about the quality of oysters they buy. Therefore, they are willing to pay a high price for high-quality oysters. Chinese consumers tend to choose imported premium seafood products. Imported oysters come from Japan, the US and Australia.
Eating raw oysters is a relatively new concept in China. Data from the China Fishery Statistical Yearbook 2019 shows that China’s oyster aquaculture production reached 5.1 million tons in 2018, a year-on-year increase of 5.3%. In 2017 it was 4.8 million tons.
[Data Source: China Fisheries Yearbook 2019, ‘China’s oyster production’]
The main producing areas of Chinese oysters are in Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Fujian has a long history of oyster farming and has so far become China’s largest oyster farming area. In 2018, Fujian oyster aquaculture production reached 1.8 million tons, ranking first in the country. Guangdong oyster production was 1.1 million tons, taking second place.[Data Source: China Fisheries Yearbook 2019, ‘Main producing areas of oysters in China’]
COVID-19 impact on the premium seafood market in China
Fall in prices for lobsters
Lobster prices have plummeted to the lowest levels in four years after the spread of coronavirus halted charter flights to Asia. It happened at a time when sales usually boom for Chinese New Year celebrations. That is why the lobster industry was particularly affected. Prices for a whole lobster weighing 1.5 pounds have tumbled 17% since January 20, falling to $8.10. This is the lowest price since 2016. Demand for live Canadian lobster has dwindled to 5% of normal volumes in mainland China.
After the coronavirus outbreak in China restaurants started canceling reservations and people stayed home. When it comes to premium seafood exports, the most affected countries were the US, Canada and Australia, as they are the main exporters of lobsters to China. For example, the US company Lobster Co saw an inventory loss of 40% of its value as shore prices dipped from $7.45 to $4.38. They had to sell 50,000 pounds at a loss. In Australia fishers and wholesalers began trying to offload the premium product in local retail markets.
The premium seafood market in China after COVID-19
According to the statistics, import of seafood in China in the first quarter of 2020 fell by 27% from the fourth quarter of 2019.
[Data source: Statista, ‘China’s import of seafood’]
By the first quarter of 2020, consumption was almost stagnant. Besides, the import and transportation of Chinese seafood was blocked. Although China’s premium seafood imports slowed in 2020, consumption has a potential to grow. The coronavirus epidemic in China will have a serious economic impact on the Chinese and global premium seafood market and supply chain. It will also have an impact on both supply and demand of seafood in Asian countries. However, the Chinese market has recovered earlier than other countries around the world. There is hope that once the supply chain of seafood regains balance, the industry will function normally.
After the epidemic is over, experts expect that the public will experience retaliatory consumption. Gradually the demand for seafood is returning to normal. For example, the frequency of searching “lobster” on Baidu increased after the epidemic situation got better.
Baidu index: search frequency for “lobster” increased after COVID-19 outbreak
Key takeaways for China’s luxury seafood market
- The premium seafood market in China has great potential due to rising living standards in the country.
- Although premium seafood is particularly popular during the Chinese New Year, it may soon become a regular meal in middle-class Chinese families.
- The coronavirus outbreak had a huge impact on the premium seafood market in China. It interrupted the supply chain and reduced consumption. However, the trend shows that China is returning to normal life and demand for premium seafood will soon be restored.