Ecuadorean shrimp exports to US hit ‘limit’ as attention shifts to China

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Although Ecuador supplied 170 million pounds of shrimp last year to the US, out of the 719m it exported worldwide, that figure has likely peaked as producers divert their attention to feed ravenous Chinese demand, an industry consultant said.

Speaking before an audience of several hundred shrimp farmers and company representatives at the 8th Nicovita Symposium, shrimp sector consultant Gabriel Luna said he believes US demand for Ecuadorean product has likely matured.

 “The US is an interesting market and it’s going to keep growing though it won’t necessarily keep growing with Ecuadorean exports. It may grow from other markets but our volume to the US I believe that our US exports have reached a limit if other conditions are maintained,” he said.

He added that: “It’s a mature market, a good market and we’re going to keep maintaining it.”

The conference occurred days before a massive earthquake struck Ecuador, which has made shrimp producers’ production projections less certain.

The changing conditions Luna referred to are a recent shift in Asian buying patterns.

He compared five years of figures in Ecuador’s three key export markets: The US, Europe and Asia.

In January of 2012, the US and Europe were roughly equal with Ecuadorean purchases with over 10m pounds each and Asian purchases lagging significantly behind with less than 5m pounds. 

Since then, all three markets have increased their buys.

In January 2016, US and European consumers’ buys began approaching 15m pounds. But Asian exports had skyrocketed five-fold to over 25m pounds driven by Chinese demand for head-on shrimp.

The biggest jump occurred in 2013 as Asian countries ravaged by early mortality syndrome (EMS) swapped out local production for Ecuadorean shrimp, buying more shrimp than Ecuador’s two traditional export markets combined.

But the EMS effect, once believed to be temporary, now seems permanent.

“The countries have now recovered and between those that have recovered and those that have grown as Ecuador has grown, world production is at where it was before. Now there isn’t a shrimp scarcity. However, Ecuador keeps growing because we are a niche provider in China for restaurant consumption that are not going change their buying patterns,” Luna said.

Ecuadorean shrimp is increasing seen as a premium product, he added.

“There are opportunities in China that still haven’t appeared yet because China is still growing,” he said.

If there is ever a conflict between the demand among the export markets, it will likely occur between China and Europe where shrimp is sold whole as opposed to the US where the head is removed. This can happen in the run up to the Christmas season, which is followed by Chinese New Year, he said.

Overall Ecuadorean production topped 719m pounds last year and is expected to reach even higher this year.

But even as Ecuadorean farmers have their pick of markets, Luna added that the industry is eying new opportunities. Markets in Colombia and Chile are small, buying around 7m pounds compared to 370m in China, but promising, he added. And Ecuador is beginning to achieve brand recognition with its neighbors.

“Chile in their restaurants has ‘Ecuadorean shrimp’ on the menu. It says these are Ecuadorean shrimp, taste the difference,” he said.

Taiwan, which is currently served by Honduras, can also be an option for Ecuadorean producers if traditional markets run into trouble. But it comes with a quirk.

“One of the problems of Taiwan is that they buy 1.1 net kilos in a 2-kilo box. And many of the packers say, no, I don’t want to pack that,” Luna said.