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Business / Chinese market for crab and salmon suffers sudden decline

Brown crab. Photo: NAFC Marine Centre

ISLES seafood exports to China are suffering a double-whammy as Scottish salmon sales have been affected by the coronavirus, adding to a freeze on live brown crab exports. 

The Scottish Government announced a “package of support” on Tuesday in a bid to shore up the flagging fortunes of the crab trade, which has been effectively halted by intensive Chinese testing for the heavy metal cadmium.

Fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing branded the crab export situation as “critical”. China, which only opened to crab exports in 2015, has been an important market, especially in light of Brexit uncertainty over Europe.

Chief executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain David Jarrad said that the coronavirus had paralysed all trade with China, but underlying that, the testing regime for cadmium had put the crab trade on hold.

With 86 per cent of shellfish landed in the UK going to export, the uncertainty over Brexit and the present loss of the hard-won Chinese market mean troubled times for the industry. UK crab exports to China are worth £35m to £40m annually.

Jarrad said: “A large proportion of that [UK landings] goes to the EU and a significant proportion to China.

“It was that opening of the China trade in 2015 that started a very significant increase in the landed price of brown crab that the sector has enjoyed for three and a half years.

“Trade has ground to a halt. The primary factor here is that China has a different standard for levels of heavy metals in crab than the UK or EU.”

All the live crab are tested, but the three or four day turnaround leaves so many dead that neither buyers are sellers are interested in the trade, even if some live shellfish can be released to the market, said Jarrad.

“As an organisation we are very aware of the situation and we are working hard with the Scottish and UK Government to help that situation and find alternative markets and hopefully in the long-term rectify the China trade,” he added.

China previously banned brown crab imports in 2015, shortly after the market was opened, before lifting the ban the following year. The latest controls were imposed last year, prompting Holyrood to seek diversification of the market.

SNP minister Fergus Ewing speaking in Sandwick's Carnegie Hall on Monday night. Photo: Shetnews
Scottish fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing.

According to the Scottish Government, the UK accounts for 90 per cent of live brown crab imports to China and 50 per cent of these are from Scotland – totalling £16 million a year.

Ewing said: “With the Chinese Government increasing its control measures around the import of live brown crab, the sector is reaching a critical situation.

“We are working closely with the UK Government to find a resolution with the Chinese Government, but it is a complex situation that is taking time to resolve.

“Following consultation with key stakeholders and our enterprise agencies, I am unveiling a package of measures to support this vital coastal industry to seek alternative markets.”

The measures include: funding for businesses to attend international trade shows, access to a bespoke ‘showcasing Scotland’ space at these shows, and the facilitation of “meet the buyer” events, including supporting an inward mission to Scotland for international buyers. The aim is to create more export opportunities to more countries.

“Many of the affected businesses diversified into the Chinese market due to the uncertainties around Brexit and future access to the EU market. It is only right therefore that we seek to support them through this very challenging time, as we continue to work to find a resolution,” added Ewing.

EU regulations on cadmium only cover ‘white meat’ which is the main edible element for consumers – however the law in China covers all edible parts including brown meat which contains higher levels of cadmium.

According to Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, meanwhile, the coronavirus has started to bite into fish exports, with movement of goods and people shut down in large parts of the country.

The price of Norwegian salmon also reportedly fell back sharply over the weekend.

A spokesman for the SSPO said: “We are obviously monitoring the situation very closely: China is a very important market for us.

“The early indications are that the demand for imports of salmon has slowed as a result of the ongoing health issues in the country, particularly in the restaurant and hotel trade.

“As a result, the small number of our member companies who are affected are looking for other markets for fish which would have been destined for China, particularly in the US and around Europe.

“But the first priority for everybody has to be the health and wellbeing of the people of China and we hope this crisis eases as soon as possible.”