China, a huge and growing market for prawns

EM1 20 TM CWPrawnInternational Cold Water Prawn Forum, November 2019, Newfoundland and Labrador

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 1 / 2020

The International Cold Water Prawn Forum brings together companies, institutions, researchers, and others, with an interest in cold water prawns. Every two years the forum holds a cold water prawn conference to discuss the state of stocks, their harvesting, processing, and marketing.

Shrimp can be either wild-caught or farmed and according to the FAO, while production from the wild has shown a faintly growing trend, since about 2003 volumes have been more or less stable, while farmed shrimp production over the same period has increased exponentially and is likely to continue increasing.

Developing countries increase their shrimp consumption

Aquaculture offers several advantages, Felix Dent, FAO, told delegates. It is easier to control production levels, and there is greater potential for vertical integration. It is also easier to monitor size, colour, nutrition, and exposure to health hazards resulting in a highly uniform product. Most farmed shrimp production is in the developing world where it can contribute to food security through direct consumption and income generation. Globalisation and trade liberalisation has driven rapid growth in exports from developing countries to markets in the developed world but is now slowing due to a backlash against globalisation and more protectionist trade policies. Developing countries are increasingly finding national and regional markets for their products: developing countries’ share of shrimp imports, though still significantly lower than developed countries’, has been growing rapidly since 2008.

Several factors can explain the growth in markets in developing countries including the emergence of a rapidly expanding middle class, particularly in China, increased urbanisation, greater prosperity, a lack of time to spend in the kitchen, growing awareness of health and lifestyle issues. These factors in turn have had an impact on distribution (more retail chain sales), product innovation (emphasis on processed foods, ready to cook, and ready to eat meals), and consumption (more out-of-home meals). Health awareness has also lead to greater consumer interest in species such as salmon and tuna which are perceived to have health benefits, and has contributed to the proliferation of standards and labels that certify all manners of attributes that consumers profess to be concerned about. For example, between 2003 and 2018 the number of EU ecolabel licences went from 149 to 2,167, though they fell to 1,575 in 2019. Overall, data from the FAO show that per capita consumption of animal protein is increasing with seafood, pork, and poultry leading the way. Within the seafood category salmonids have a growing share of global import value while that of shrimp has fallen, but at 15% (2016) is still significantly higher than tuna (10%), whitefish (10%), or bivalves (3%).

Climate change is likely to have unexpected impacts on resources

Per capita fish consumption is projected to rise in all parts of the world according to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2019-2028 with China showing by far the most impressive growth. In Europe consumption is estimated to rise by between one and two kilos by 2028, while in China it is predicted to increase by five kg. Catering to this expected increase in demand for fish and seafood calls for strengthening governance, combating IUU fishing, and putting in place robust traceability and catch documentation systems, and encouraging the sustainable growth of the aquaculture industry. All the stakeholders from producers, to governments, consumers, regional fisheries management organisations and international organisations have a role to play. However, another factor, climate change, could complicate efforts to increase seafood production. Carbon dioxide emissions are heating and acidifying the oceans and even if emissions were to fall the heat and acidification will take a long time to reduce, said Eric Bjorkstedt, NOAA Fisheries. He pointed to changes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans such as an intensification of coastal upwelling in the Pacific northeast and a warming and deoxygenation of water along the continental shelf and slope in the northwest Atlantic due to the weakening of the Labrador current. Warming, retreating sea ice, and altered currents can also be seen in the northeast Atlantic, while the north Pacific shows warmer conditions and reduced upwelling. These changes are likely to give rise to rapid shifts and unanticipated climate events such as marine heat waves, which will have an impact on marine life.

Biomass may increase in some areas while decreasing in others

Some of the effects of these changes on shrimp stocks were described in a presentation by Brian MacKenzie, DTU Aqua, who said that currently most stocks were at or above biomass limits, meaning that if exploitation continues at sustainable levels, then stocks can be expected to remain ecologically and economically viable in the short term. Over a longer timescale, however, climate change will influence shrimp fisheries as it alters the animal’s habitat. As water warms, for example, shrimp are likely to move north into cooler or deeper waters, though the rate of this move (how far, how fast) is uncertain. These developments will in turn have an impact on the biomass and fishery yields. How other species, in particular those that feed on, or provide feed for, shrimp, react to changes in the environment will also have a bearing on future shrimp abundance. The overall effect is likely to be that some areas will show increased productivity and fishable biomass, while others will show a decline. Knowledge is currently too fragmentary and limited to predict in detail when, where, and how fast shrimp biomass and distribution will change.

For shrimp catching and processing companies this is hardly reassuring. Uncertainty makes it difficult to plan especially if it involves decisions about highly capital-intensive investments, such as in vessels. Blaine Sullivan, Ocean Choice, a Canadian company fishing and processing several species at six plants in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, spoke of a drop in shrimp landings from 106 thousand tonnes in 2006 to 45 thousand tonnes in 2018 caused largely by environmental factors. This decline makes it difficult to maintain harvesting and processing capacity and the company has had to adapt by converting one of its vessels from shrimp to groundfish and by processing more offshore industrial shrimp. The company has also taken several mitigation measures such as waste and emission reductions, maximising the use of resources, and investing in energy efficient solutions. Since climate change affects whole industries the company has partnered with other ocean-dependent firms to solve common challenges. Such initiatives, together with others to mitigate climate change, and investments in research and innovation are among Ocean Choice’s responses to the trends it is facing.

Shrimp processors in Argentina need to focus on value addition, certification

However, on another part of the American continent where another shrimp species is being fished, the picture looks different. Argentine red shrimp is the only crustacean fishery where captures and values have been increasing, reported Federico Angeleri, Grupo Varez. The shrimp is caught on the southern coast of Argentina by both artisanal and industrial fleets in inshore and offshore waters. The product is sold both fresh and frozen and exports are primarily to Spain and China. The fishery is managed by spatial and temporal closures (there are no quotas) and vessels need a valid permit and must meet legal requirements. Captures are monitored by observers and data on by-catch, size, maturity etc. reported to the authorities. Now, says Mr Angeleri, the fishery needs to evolve further in response to changes in the market by focusing more on sustainability, certification, added-value products, brand creation, and fleet renewal. Fishery Improvement Projects have been working with both inshore and offshore fisheries for the last years and progress has been significant. Outstanding issues include by-catch (inshore it is low, but offshore it is high), a management plan that is weak, and a lack of commitment from industry and the government. More and more processors are having their operations audited for compliance with international food quality standards like BRC and ISF, but progress on social certification has been slow. Catch quality needs to improve so that the product can convincingly carry a brand that positions Argentine red shrimp as a premium item. Renewing the fleet would contribute to better catch quality but is expensive and companies lack the necessary credit lines.

The Chinese market is huge but competitive and complex

Argentine red shrimp is just one of many species that feeds the vast Chinese market. With 1.4bn increasingly affluent consumers and a per capita consumption of seafood predicted to rise to 4 kg in 2022 from 3.8 kg in 2018, China sucks in huge and growing quantities of seafood from across the world. In terms of shrimp alone the country is a very important player as a producer, exporter, and importer. According to Darrel Roche, Whitecap International Seafood Exporters, improvements in the seafood cold chain enable consumers to order seafood online and have it delivered the same day or the next. Direct retail too has grown, and the ease with which consumers can get seafood, including shrimp, has increased their awareness making it popular also when dining out. For international seafood traders, other factors of interest, that influence the Chinese seafood market, include greater trust in products imported from the west and those that stem from the deep sea, and a preference for seafood compared with pork due to the spread of swine influenza. The Chinese import market for shrimp is, at 8%, the world’s third largest after the US and Japan and growth in import values have averaged 40% per year since 2014, while import volumes have grown on average by 35% a year since 2014. The main suppliers in 2018 were Ecuador, Argentina, and Thailand which accounted for 58% of Chinese imports by value. The imported products are overwhelmingly frozen shrimps and prawns which accounted for 75% of the value followed by frozen cold water shrimps and prawns at 16%. The rest comprised fresh or chilled and prepared/preserved. Shrimp products launched on the Chinese market between 2014 and 2018 were promoted for their time saving attributes, suitability for microwaves, flexible packaging, and lack of additives. With Russian biomass increasing and strong growth in the Greenlandic resource, Mr Roche considered the Chinese market critical to increasing consumption of cold water prawns. E-commerce companies, hypermarkets, large retailer and the Horeca sector should be the focus of marketing efforts which should make liberal use of social media.

The presentations from the event are available at: