By  Undercurrent News Jan. 23, 2019 13:46 GMT

China’s seafood imports ballooned by a massive 44% to $11.9 billion last year as the country continues to change the face of global seafood trade.

In the twelve months to the end of December 2018, China imported CNY 787bn worth of seafood, according to Chinese customs data published on Wednesday.

In US dollar terms, the increase amounted to $3.62bn compared with 2017 to $11.91bn, Chinese customs said, a percentage increase of 43.6%.

“Wow,” said Undercurrent News’ China correspondent, Hu Luyi.

The increase in imports was greater than for any other food commodity, Chinese figures show.

Chinese customs figures also do not include imports of fishmeal (HS code 2301), worth an additional $1.5bn-2.5bn in annual imports in a typical year.

China’s seafood exports increased by 3% year-on-year to $21.5bn, Chinese customs show. This includes seafood traded under HS codes 03, 1604 and 1605.

Exports grew more slowly as labor costs in China rise and aquaculture production growth slows or possibly contracts.

China is home to a huge re-processing industry, importing unprocessed fish and seafood from all over the globe and then processing it for re-export, which comprises a large share of China’s seafood imports.

Chinese imports have also surged as the country’s growing middle-class splash out on seafood imports, thanks to concerns about food safety, preference for foreign and wild-caught products, and increasing consumer choice.

But in 2018, the increase was likely mainly down to growing direct shipments to China.

“It’s part of the reason,” an importer told Undercurrent, referring to the growth in direct imports.

In recent years, the true picture of China’s seafood consumption boom has been hidden due to an illicit seafood trade across the border between northern Vietnam and southern China. According to an Undercurrent analysis, in 2016, Vietnam’s seafood imports were worth over $5bn, up from $25 million in 2001, with the majority of imports transhipped to China.

The trade blossomed to avoid Chinese imports tariffs — which are levied on imports for domestic consumption but not on raw material processed and re-exported — and inspection, but legitimate importers were undercut and a large volume of seafood imports was hidden from view.

Besides the smuggling crackdown, China has also reduced tariffs on products and struck free trade agreements, with Australian exporters of rock lobster enjoying zero-tariff access as of Jan. 1 this year.

With more seafood imported by China direct through official channels, legitimate importers will benefit from a more level playing field and a closer relationship between suppliers and consumers.