Increasing Asian demand for Canadian seafood has the industry looking east for growth
Reporters trying to track down busy seafood company execs are finding it a tough go these days. “Sorry,” receptionists invariably tell us, “he’s on a plane bound for Asia.” Truth is there’s hardly a vice-president of seafood sales or marketing anywhere who hasn’t penciled Seoul, Bangkok or the China Fisheries and Seafood Expo in Dalian in their calendar this year. “That’s where I’m heading tomorrow,” laughs Jeff Duffin, vice-president of Marketing for Bedford, N.S.-based Clearwater Seafoods. The reason, says Duffin, is a burgeoning Asian middle class that has discovered an appetite for high-quality, prestige products like Canadian lobster and scallops. “There’s this growing consumer base in a lot of the Asian markets that us and others I’m sure are seeing as a potential opportunity and just a great growth area.”
Others who agree include Patrick McGuinness, president of the Canadian Fisheries Council, who says something interesting is happening to the 85 per cent of seafood Canada exports each year. More of it is increasingly finding its way into Chinese retail and foodservice sectors, not just to China’s traditional re-processing sector, which ships Canadian seafood to consumers in Western Europe and Japan.
“In the not too distant future they’ll be consuming about US$20 billion of seafood. So that’s really encouraging,” says McGuinness. “And our industry has been on the forefront of participating in marketing campaigns to the Chinese retail sector and expanding our sales.”
Guy Dean has watched China’s newly discovered taste for the Canadian catch increase too. “Dungeness crab has become a really strong market in China and Hong Kong and that continues to grow,” says the vice-president of Import, Export for Albion Fisheries in Vancouver, B.C. “We’re getting lots of enquiries from more and more Chinese distributors looking for Canadian products to be consumed in China.”
The trick? To make sure Chinese distributors get that all-important return call. That’s because the Chinese are looking everywhere for high-quality seafood, including the U.S. In 2010 the U.S. discovered that less of the seafood it sent to China for reprocessing was being shipped back to American consumers. “They kept it for domestic consumption,” says Gavin Gibbons, Media Relations director for the National Fisheries Institute. “So that is certainly something that we’re watching in terms of China’s growth as a seafood market. Absolutely.”
Asia: giving as good as it gets
It turns out Asian seafood processors watch our markets as much as we watch theirs. Consider, Gibbons tells us, tilapia. Back in 2003 Tilapia sat ninth among the top seafood species that represent 90 per cent of seafood consumption, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (for 2012 Statistics Canada shows imports from China of 1,084,999 kg of frozen, fresh and chilled tilapia valued at $2.6 million). By 2010 tilapia had leapt to fourth spot on the list, where it has been vying for supremacy with salmon, canned tuna and shrimp ever since. McGuinness calls the growth in tilapia consumption “a worldwide phenomenon,” driven largely by a demand for lower-priced seafood. But the world also has a growing preference for milder tasting white fish, which lends itself to greater versatility in seafood preparation.
“A lot of people don’t like the smell of seafood,” says Kelly Nelson, executive vice-president for Lunenburg, N.S.,-based Highliner Seafood. “Tilapia is a very bland fish and so is an excellent carrier of sauce or coatings. It’s very, very attractive to consumers.”