Rising incomes and a strong cultural emphasis on freshness are supporting an entirely new category of exports to China - live seafood. This report focuses on live crabs and lobster, for which U.S. exports to China grew by 550% and 400%, respectively, in 2010.
THIS REPORT CONTAINS ASSESSMENTS OF COMMODITY AND TRADE ISSUES MADE BY
USDA STAFF AND NOT NECESSARILY STATEMENTS OF OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT
GAIN Report Number:
China - Peoples Republic of
Post: Beijing ATO
Live Crab and Lobster Exports Boom
ATO ACTIVITIES reports
HRI Food Service Sector
Ralph Bean/Angie Han
Rising incomes and a strong cultural emphasis on freshness are supporting an entirely new category of
exports to China - live seafood. This report focuses on live crabs and lobster, for which U.S. exports to
China grew by 550% and 400%, respectively, in 2010.
Lobsters and Crabs, Alive, Alive Oh!
Seafood, including crabs and shellfish, has always occupied a privileged position in Chinese cuisine as one of the
top menu items. Tourists flock to coastal destinations from Hainan Island to Qingdao to Dalian in search not
only of surf and sand, but seafood as well. Chinese cuisine places a heavy emphasis on freshness, and no good
seafood restaurant is complete without a wide selection of tanks full of live shellfish, lobsters, crabs and other
bottom-dwelling delicacies. Growing incomes and declining local supplies have led to a boom in imports of live
seafood from overseas, above and beyond traditional demand for frozen seafood.
According to Global Trade Atlas, U.S. exports of live crabs to China grew by over 550% from 2009 to 2010 to
pass $5 million, and lobster exports to China grew by over 400% to surpass $1 million. U.S. Customs data tell a
similar story: exports of live lobster to China jumped from $260,000 in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2010, then
jumped again to a total of $2 million in just the first quarter of 2011. Likewise, these data show exports of
?crabs, nesoi? (the category including live crabs) as growing from $776,000 in 2009 to over $5 million in 2010,
with sales topping $3.8 million in the first quarter of 2011. Shellfish exports grew at a comparatively modest
12% (geoducks) to 26% (other than geoducks) in 2010, though imports in the first quarter of 2011 jumped by
62% and 54%, respectively, compared to the same period in 2010.
The Vibrant Trade in Live Crustaceans
United States Shellfish Exports To China
Calendar Year: 2008 ? 2010
United States Dollars % Change
2008 2009 2010 2010/2009
Crabs, Raw (Live Etc), Cooked (Stm Etc) Not
030624 Frozen 31,953 779,310 5,083,170 552.27
Lobsters, Live, Fresh,Ch, Dried, Saltd Or In
030622 Brine 74,651 259,654 1,308,401 403.9
Source: Global Trade Atlas
The ATO Connection
The U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Agricultural Trade Offices (ATOs) have played an important role
in building markets for seafood. ATOs work with industry organizations such as the Alaska Seafood
Marketing Institute and regional groups such as Food Export U.S.A. Northeast to build distributor
contacts and to identify good potential markets for U.S. products. ATO/Beijing supports the U.S.
pavilion at the Dalian/Qingdao Fisheries Show, where live Boston lobster and U.S. geoducks were
introduced to China. ATO was able to quickly follow up on buyer interest at the most recent show,
thanks to support from Food Export USA, who funded travel for two key buyers to the Boston Seafood
Show. ATO put together a team of Chinese buyers to attend the show and to visit key U.S. seafood
suppliers on both the east and west coasts, providing translation and helping to set up meetings with
suppliers. Shortly after, ATO made contact with a group of shippers and suppliers for a live fish export
project, who are interested in adding other live seafood to their package in order to bring down
shipping costs. The highlight of all of these activities has been the rapid growth in interest in live
shipments. (While live seafood was the headline story, the buying team to the Boston Seafood show
also identified strong interest in other products, including sea cucumbers, oysters, frozen squid and
In addition to making the connections between exporters, importers and shippers, ATOs also work to
build recognition and demand for U.S. products. As always, these activities are done in close
coordination with Industry cooperators. For example, the ATO-sponsored Chinese New Year media
event at the Ambassador? residence showcased live Alaska King Crab (as well as frozen cod) in Chinese-
style dishes developed especially for this event. Industry donations and support from groups like ASMI
kept costs for the event to a minimum, while media coverage garnered well over 200,000 hits on
major Chinese web portals and stories in several major newspapers. Web footage included video and
still photos of all the dishes developed. The Alaska King Crab dish was the clear favorite, getting rave
reviews from food reporters. ATO is currently working with ASMI to feature Alaska seafood products
(Pacific Cod and Pollock roe) in a competition that will challenge the chefs from 14 hotels to develop
new dishes based on Alaska products for their Chinese customers.
Where It Goes
The bulk of the live seafood entering the Beijing market gets sold at wholesale markets to buyers from
the HRI sector. Virtually all of it moves into Chinese-style restaurants, underscoring the strong
emphasis on freshness in Chinese cooking ? even five-star western establishments are relatively minor
buyers compared to the high-end Chinese restaurants. Shipments directly to end users are still
relatively rare, and the connection between the importer and buyer is not well-developed, resulting in
considerable fluctuations in price as supply and demand move back and forth. Wholesale markets
remain the primary sales point for live imported shellfish, but a growing number of established
importers are carrying live product, and as this line of business develops, price fluctuations are likely to
fall into a more regular seasonal pattern. Distribution of live shellfish on to second tier markets usually
starts in Beijing/Tianjin, with buyers visiting the wholesale markets, then arranging their own trucking.
The big exception to this is Qingdao, which is both a major seafood import point and a distribution
center on to nearby secondary cities (Qingdao even onward ships some seafood to Beijing). A small
amount of the less expensive live shellfish makes its way into retail markets, but margins on this
business tend to be low.
Breaking It Down
Live Boston Lobster: In just two years, Boston Lobster has become one of the fastest growing imports
into China. Wholesale markets report that the total import volume into Beijing is over 2,000 pounds
per day. From Beijing, products are frequently shipped onward to other markets in North China. At
present, distributors say that most live Boston lobsters imported into China are moving via Canada.
Competition is fierce, driving wholesale prices down to somewhere around RMB74 per ½ kilogram,
compared to 6RMB higher for direct imports from the U.S.
Live Dungeness Crab: Live Dungeness crab is the most widely traded live crab to China, with imports
being traded onward to locations as remote as Inner Mongolia and even Xinjiang. During the low
season in summer, about 100 cases are imported into Beijing each day. At the peak season during
winter, daily imports may reach 250 cases, equal to 10,000 pounds. These imports are supplied
primarily to Beijing and the provinces of North China, with some occasionally moving as far south as
Shanghai. Of the total, the city of Beijing consumes an estimated 15%. Imports of dungeness crabs
have increased by around 20% each year. The popularity of imported crabs is related to concerns
about food safety, declining catch of domestic crabs, and rising domestic prices for crabs. Dungeness
crabs are currently trading in a price range from RMB40 to RMB130 per ½ kilogram in Beijing?s
wholesale live seafood markets.
Live King Crab: King crabs originate in the Bering Sea region and live king crab in the Beijing markets
are imported primarily from Russia and South Korea, with a total import volume around 100 kilograms
per day. King crabs exported from the U.S. to China tend to be expensive relative to the competition.
South Korea has an advantage in this market as its proximity to and historical ties with China?s
Shandong province makes shipment to the processors in cities like Yantai and Qingdao relatively quick
and easy. Chile exports a different type of king crab which, while similar in size, is sufficiently different
in appearance to be easily distinguished from its northern cousin.
It?s About More Than Just Shellfish
Live shellfish is a great market niche, and one that appears primed to keep growing ? after all, Boston
lobster is relatively new to this market. But the boom in live seafood imports is emblematic of a much
larger trend. Recent years have seen rapid gains in exports of fresh cherries, also an airfreighted
cargo, to China, and other premium products. Organics are also doing well (a recent collaboration
between ATOs and the Organics Trade Association saw the sale of two full containers of organics on
the spot), taking advantage of growing concerns about health and lifestyle issues. As Chinese
consumers? incomes continue to rise, a new class of consumers has come on the scene, whose
priorities are quality, safety, and prestige, and for whom price is not the leading factor. These
consumers are redefining marketing strategies for a wide range of products, and setting trends for
Chinese consumers as a whole.