Sep. 26, 2019 17:48 BST

China increasingly calls the shots in the global shrimp industry with its market now worth billions to foreign exporters, latest Chinese customs data published on Wednesday (Sept. 25) shows.

Chinese figures show that in August, China imported $372 million worth of frozen warmwater shrimp, taking its imports to $2.29bn for the first eight months of the year.

The volume of China’s frozen warmwater shrimp imports came to 63,000 metric tons for the month, or 378,000t for the Jan-Aug period.

The figures represent an increase of 234% in volume and 185% in value for the eight-month period, compared with the corresponding time last year.

The surge in imports means some of the world’s largest shrimp companies faced a potentially existential threat when Chinese authorities decided to suspend export approvals of facilities dedicated to supplying the Chinese market.

Companies in China’s first, third and fourth-largest shrimp supplying countries — Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam respectively — had shrimp units hit with “temporary suspensions”, on the grounds shrimp products carried disease. The suspensions were announced apparently with no forewarning.

China swiftly withdrew suspensions for some and introduced exemptions for cooked shrimp, perhaps concerned when Ecuador’s minister of production visited Japan to meet Itochu Group, a large commodities company, after holding talks with officials in China.

Omarsa Group, for instance, Ecuador’s second-largest shrimp exporter, and Saudi Arabia’s National Aquaculture Group, Saudi Arabia’s largest seafood company, have had suspensions lifted.

Ecuador China’s largest supplier

Between Jan-Aug, China imported the most volume of shrimp from Ecuador. Last month, 36,500t of Ecuadorian shrimp entered China, taking the Asian country’s imports from Ecuador in Jan-Aug to 187,000t.

India, meanwhile, supplied 16,400t last month, taking China’s imports from the country to 95,000t in the eight-month period; Vietnam, 3,600t, taking imports to 15,700t.

Curiously, despite Saudi Arabia’s NAQUA’s suspension, which was imposed on Aug. 2,  China imported 1,900t of shrimp from the Middle Eastern country last month, taking its imports to 25,000t for the first eight months. NAQUA is the only company in Saudi Arabia certified to export shrimp to China.

It is not clear how Chinese importers continued to import shrimp from Saudi Arabia in August and NAQUA did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Decline of the Hai Phong route

The huge increase in China’s shrimp imports follows the rapid decline of the Hai Phong route, which refers to the ilicit cross-border trade from Vietnam’s northernmost port into China. Previously, most shrimp was imported by China via this channel undocumented.

For instance, in July and August, when this route was closed off, China’s direct imports surged to 125,000t, Chinese figures show.

When factoring in additional volumes imported through Vietnam earlier in the year, China’s total shrimp imports between Jan-Aug likely surpassed half a million metric tons, Undercurrent estimates.

Earlier this year, Chinese industry officials forecast China would import over 800,000t of shrimp in 2019 (including coldwater shrimp), overhauling the US to become the world’s largest shrimp importer by volume.

Note: The above figures for Chinese warmwater shrimp imports include imports of Argentine red shrimp, which is a wild-caught coldwater shrimp species traded under the same HS code.