Coronavirus saps China’s demand for rock lobster, hitting exporters in Australia, Canada and New Zealand

Su-Lin Tan

Slashed lobster prices in Chinese restaurants globally have excited diners but hurt exporters, while fishermen have responded promptly to the trade fallout from the coronavirus outbreak by reining in supply.

The outbreak arrived in the midst of Lunar New Year celebrations – traditionally the busiest season for lobster orders – causing restaurants to cut prices by up to 50 per cent and some major exporters like New Zealand to consider tipping their live catch back into the sea.

Authorities in New Zealand last week said they would assist desperate exporters with controlled releases of some lobsters after most of the nation’s rock lobster orders to China were cancelled.

In Australia, the Australia China Business Council said the government had been inundated with inquiries from the industry for help.

While governments consider how to deal with the situation, fishermen around the world have acted swiftly by docking their boats in hopes of waiting out the crisis.

Restaurants might be desperate to churn through their lobsters, but the fishing industry has some time up its sleeve by postponing fishing quotas until demand and prices steady again, fishermen said.

South Australian rock lobster fishing company, Ferguson Australia, said the situation was similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2002-2003.

“It’s a waiting game, but we will slowly re-enter the market when it kicks back in,” the company’s managing director Andrew Ferguson said.

“For us fishers, we mostly work on just-in-time orders and … and there are also other markets which are still importing.”

The industry, however, could only last so long as many cost-intensive fisheries relied on the massive Chinese market, he said.

China is the world’s largest importer of lobster, with most of its imports coming from Canada, Australia, Cuba and New Zealand. The United States was a major exporter to the Chinese market until the trade war between the world’s two largest economies disrupted bilateral ties and allowed Canada to step in and increase its supply.

In the first quarter of 2019, China imported 12,600 tonnes of lobster followed by the US, which imported 87,000 tonnes, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative (GFC) in Western Australia, which sells 90 per cent of its rock lobsters to China, placed a stop-supply order on its members on January 24, soon after the state’s annual fishing season started on January 15.

“While the outbreak has had an economic impact on our industry, it pales in comparison to what the Chinese community are going through,” a spokesman said.

“Currently, we are not exporting to China. We started receiving market feedback on January 23 that restrictions on citizen’s movements in China were having an impact on hotel, restaurant, banquet events … over the next couple of days cancellations continued and market demand diminished.”

The cancellation of exports has proven costly for the Western Australia rock lobster industry, coming during peak-time supply of 30 tonnes a day at prices of US$60 to US$90 per kilogram. Averaging the industry’s turnover, the cancelled orders in the past month resulted in a loss of around A$50 million (US$33.6 million).

The GFC said it was mitigating the problem by redistributing lobsters to non-Chinese markets, including locally, the US, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, while making plans to process and freeze some of the unsold stock.

So far, unlike New Zealand, there were no plans by Australian lobster fishermen, including those in the west of Australia, to release the caught lobster, state and federal governments said.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus has impacted immediate shipments and orders … our principal concern is for our customers and their families dealing with this crisis in China

Geoff Irvine

According to Ferguson Australia, it was not all doom and gloom, with parts of China such as Beijing still placing orders, although many were from opportunistic buyers making purchases in smaller quantities.

The Lobster Council of Canada said while exports have slowed, it had a big US market to fall back on and the seasonal fishing break in Canada was also providing a buffer.

More than 50 per cent of its exports – mostly processed – were sold in North America and Europe, while the remaining shipments of live lobsters went to China, other parts of Asia, the US and Europe.

“Our exposure to this type of slowdown in China is difficult, but we do have other markets and product types to mitigate the situation,” said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

“There is no doubt that the coronavirus has impacted immediate shipments and orders … our principal concern is for our customers and their families dealing with this crisis in China.”

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