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The Trade Numerologist: The future of fish

30 Apr 2018 John Miller
The world's appetite for fish, as well as its capacity to efficiently package and ship tuna, salmon, cod and other seafood favorites, has boomed prodigiously over the past 30 years, and is expected to keep expanding, offering opportunity to producers and shipping lines, and inflating the risks posed by overfishing and environmental degradation. Global fish trade is currently at an all-time high, amounting to over 50 million tons a year, worth over $150 billion, up from 15 million tons in 1991, according to the United Nations. Around 45% of the global fish caught are now traded internationally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Fish, a high-margin product that is relatively easy to transport compared to other fresh nourishments, is now the most valuable globally traded food in the world. By comparison, global wheat trade is worth around $50 billion a year.

The trend has led to the depletion of wild stocks and concerns about sustainability. Fisheries officials hope they can preserve the ubiquity of seafood with a combination of smarter stock management and expansion of fish farming.

The world's biggest fish importers are countries with large amounts of middle and upper class consumers, according to data from the IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas.

Top fish importers, 2017
  • US $16.9 billion
  • Japan $11.7 billion
  • China $8.1 billion
  • Spain $7 billion
  • France $5.5 billion
  • Italy $5.2 billion
  • Sweden $4.6 billion
  • Germany $4.6 billion
  • South Korea $4.3 billion
  • Hong Kong $3.2 billion
One reason for the robust expansion is that rich country governments try to stimulate production by subsidizing their fleets. Total fishery subsidies are estimated at over $30 billion a year, two-third of that coming from Spain, Ireland and other developed countries with a lot of trawlers.

The growth in demand for marine food is expected to continue, thanks to rising middle classes, aging populations hungry for low-fat proteins and the popularity of sushi. But if we want to keep eating fish at will, it will require better management of wild stocks, and a dramatic expansion of fish farming.

According to the FAO, 87% of the world's marine fish stocks are now "fully exploited, overexploited or depleted." As the global human population expands to 8.5 billion by 2035, from 7.6 billion today, wild fish catches are expected to remain stagnant over that time. By comparison, fish farming, or aquaculture, is growing at over 5% a year, making it one of the fast-growing food production sectors in the world. The value of the global aquaculture market is expected to increase to $220 billion in 2022 from around $175 billion in 2017. Producers are expanding the range of species they can farm. Aquaculture is expected to represent 62% of total fish output by 2030, up from around 40% today. To be sure, fish farming also poses environmental risks, some of them unknown. Recently, outbreaks of sea lice in Norway and algae blooms in Chile, dented supply of farmed salmon, spiking prices.

Thanks in part to their aggressive expansion of aquaculture capacity, China, Norway and India are now the world's largest fish exporters.

Top fish exporters, 2017
  • China $13.3 billion
  • Norway $11.1 billion
  • India $6.7 billion
  • US $5.4 billion
  • Chile $5.3 billion
  • Canada $4.8 billion
  • Netherlands $4.2 billion
  • Sweden $4.1 billion
  • Denmark $3.6 billion
  • Spain $3.5 billion
Norwegian salmon farmer Marine Harvest is now one of the most profitable food companies in the world, in 2017 posting a record operating profit of $956 million on $4.5 billion in revenue.

The expansion in seafood demand has also driven a strong market in those countries for shipping companies, like Maersk, that offer large and diverse types of capacity in so-called reefer containers, which have refrigerated holds.

One thing that demarcates global fish trade is how easy it is, relative to other fragile fresh foods, to ship seafood long distances. Despite booming Asian demand, three of the top 10 destinations of Chinese fish exports are not in Asia.

Top destinations, Chinese fish exports, 2017
  • Japan $2.1 billion
  • US $1.7 billion
  • South Korea $1.3 billion
  • Hong Kong $1.2 billion
  • Taiwan $807.2 million
  • Thailand $642.3 billion
  • Philippines $588.6 million
  • Malaysia $390.5 million
  • Germany $384.6 million
  • Spain $337.4 million
And the US, the world's biggest seafood market, ships in fish from all over the world. Five of its top 10 suppliers are from Asia.

Top sources of US fish imports, 2017
  • Canada $2.8 billion
  • India $2 billion
  • China $1.9 billion
  • Chile $1.8 billion
  • Indonesia $1.2 billion
  • Vietnam $888 million
  • Norway $744.5 million
  • Ecuador $668.1 million
  • Mexico $558.7 million
  • Thailand $482 million
Trade and fishery officials are also hoping to preserve wild stocks by writing stricter rules into trade treaties. The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, for example, includes provisions to preserve fish stocks, including limits on certain types of subsidies, and conservation efforts for sharks, turtles and other marine species. Fish producers expect that the main barriers to expansion of global fish trade will not be tariffs, but sustainability and environmental standards that some countries used to keep out imports.

Authorities are also trying to enforce new rules on documentation and traceability. For example, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas now requires that catches of Bluefin, one of the most valuable fish products, worth over $800 million a year, be tracked in real time.

What topic would you like the Trade Numerologist to cover? Email tradenumerologist@gmail.com with comments and questions.

The Trade Numerologist is the IHS Markit unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from the IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas database, the world's most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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