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China Seafood Country Profile

Market Assessment:

China is the world’s largest producer, consumer, importer and exporter of fishery products – handling more than 40% of global production. Imports of seafood products to meet growing in-country consumption are projected to increase. Seafood consumption in China increased rapidly from 11.5kg per person in 1990 to 25.4kg in 2004, and is predicted to increase to 35.9kg/year in 2020. In 2005, China's middle class accounted for 90 million people; this is expected to increase to 650 million by 2015. China's growing population of young, sophisticated and affluent consumers (located primarily in the major cities) seek to purchase imported seafood products, in part for their status but also because imported seafood is believed to be of higher quality and coming from a cleaner environment. Growing opportunities may exist for sales of a wide range of Northeast seafood products, such as: lobster; scallops; oysters; whelk; surf clams; sea cucumber; and finfish species.  According to the report, “The Dragon’s Changing Appetite,” produced by Rabobank, China has the potential to become a US$20 billion seafood import market by the end of the current decade, with rising incomes increasing domestic demand for seafood, particularly premium species.

According to latest available data from the Global Trade Atlas, total fishery imports into China during 2014 were valued at nearly US$6.6 billion (up 10% over 2013). Russia was the leading supplier with a total market share of 19% (down from 22.7% the year before). Imports from the U.S. (at a value of nearly US$1.2 billion) ranked second with a market share of 18% (consistent with the prior year). Norway (at 8% market share), Canada (with 7%) and New Zealand (at 5%) rounded out the top five suppliers of seafood to China. Imports of Food Export-Northeast benchmark seafood products, or market same products (lobster, scallops, monkfish, dogfish, and squid), totaled US$620 million in 2014 and were up 34% over the prior year. The U.S., with exports of US$177 million and a market share of 28.5%, was the leading supplier.

Fish and seafood demand is increasing rapidly in China, the world’s largest fish and seafood consumer. While much of this demand is being met by rising domestic production, especially of aquaculture products, demand for high-value fish products also continues to surge as a result of China’s economic growth and rapidly expanding middle class. Although some U.S. fish and seafood to China is processed and re-exported, there have been rising sales of high-value products such as lobster, Pacific salmon, and crab. According to FAS, while the total value of U.S. fish and seafood exports has grown 57% over the past decade, exports to China have shot up by 370%. China accounted for only 7% of the total value of U.S. fish and seafood exports in 2004, but now accounts for 22%. In 2015, China began to show a slowdown of some seafood imports but it is still quite likely that China may surpass the EU as the top export destination for U.S. fish and seafood in coming years. 

According to FAS trade data, total U.S. seafood exports in 2015 to China were 389,825 MT (down 18% from 2014) and valued at just over US$1 billion (down 12%). Leading U.S. seafood products were: uncanned salmon (US$254 million, up 18%); cod (US$168.6 million, up 4%); sole (US$107.3 million, down 15%); pollock (US$96.4 million, down 21%); and lobster (US$85.7 million, down 5%).  Exports of Food Export-Northeast’s seafood program benchmark products (American lobster, scallops, squid, monkfish and dogfish) totaled US$134.7 million (down 29% from 2014). Decreased exports of squid were the leading contributor to decreased total exports. Individually, three of the five northeast benchmark products experienced gains: American lobster at US$79 million (up 2%); scallops at US$1.1 million (up 160%); and dogfish at US$713,000 (up 23%).

Sales of American lobster to China, a signature seafood product of the northeastern U.S., continue to experience growing demand. China was the leading foreign consumption market in 2015 for American lobster with total purchases of US$79 million (up 2%) and 5,651 MT (up 11.5%). Sales of live lobster, valued at nearly US$38 million represented 48% of purchases, although both value and volume decreased 8% from the year before. Purchases of frozen and processed lobster products were US$41 million, up US$5 million (4%) over 2014, indicating increasing demand for this category. It is also notable that lobster exports to Vietnam, which are largely destined for consumption in China, jumped 43% to reach US$40 million in 2015.

Both live and frozen processed American lobster products are widely available at retail and in the foodservice sector. Rock lobster from Australia and New Zealand and Homarus americanus lobster from Canada are the major competitors for U.S. lobster sales. Efforts to stress U.S-origin for Homarus americanus lobster have helped facilitate introduction of our lobster species into the market. As awareness for American lobster grows, educational activities to promote additional U.S. seafood products together with lobster can facilitate market entry.

Market Characteristics:

China has 31 provinces, the largest being Henan, followed by Shandong and Sichuan. There are 666 cities in China, with most major cities located within China's eastern and southern regions. Of the major cities, eleven have a population of more than two million, and 23 cities have a population between one and two million (2012). Urban migration continues to expand in China. Half of China's population resided in urban areas, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing, in 2011. This growing urbanization is leading to a greater concentration of urban consumers, who live busier lifestyles and earn higher incomes. Urban consumers are increasing demand for imported food products and they are a key demographic. As strong growth in infrastructure and logistics are refined in China's second-tier, smaller cities, boosting demand and retail development in these regions is also now possible.

Consumers tend to shop for food frequently, with many people shopping on a daily basis. There is a preference for fresh food and there are mixed perceptions for packaged food, which can be seen as inferior or lacking in freshness. While there is demand for fresh products, consumer diets have also been evolving in China, with a move toward foods that are convenient and of high quality. Demand for these types of products is expected to continue to grow in the future. Western products are often perceived as being safer and more reliable because of past food scares in China from local sources, such as tainted powdered milk. Food preparation also differs from Western cultures. Cooking at home is less common than in the west, and traditional Chinese cooking does not typically require an oven or grill. These appliances are often not present in households; however, urban middle class households now often have fridges and freezers.

China is the world’s largest market for fresh fish and seafood. According to Euromonitor, 38.7 million MT of seafood was consumed in 2014, which accounted for 40% of that year’s global production. China’s per capita fresh fish and seafood consumption is above the world average, standing at 28.5kg in 2014 compared to 13.6kg globally, and it also exceeds the regional 18.7kg average in Asia Pacific.

Euromonitor predicts that China’s fish and seafood consumption will increase by 33% over their 2014-2019 forecast period, amounting to 51.4 million MT by 2019. It is quite likely that fish and seafood will catch up with fresh meat, which is only predicted to achieve a 14% volume gain over the same period, reaching 74.5 million MT in 2019. In that year, sales of fresh fish will double those of poultry and be nearly five times higher than those of beef and veal.

Chinese consumers have historically consumed a large proportion of freshwater aquatic products harvested from the country’s extensive freshwater lakes and rivers. According to FAS/Beijing, seafood consumption is increasing due to rising consumer affluence, strong interest in a diversified and nutritious diet, and because China’s processing and distribution systems are becoming more developed.

Available data for consumer consumption and pricing trends from several surveys also indicates continuation in growth of consumption and discretionary spending. According to the trade news site, China will continue to shift expectations for future growth from fixed asset investment (in infrastructure and real estate) to consumption. In 2010, China received 47% of its GDP from consumption, compared to 88% in the U.S. and 79% in Japan, which suggests room for more “middle-class” supermarket sales.

According to recent projections from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), compiled in cooperation with the Chinese agriculture ministry in 2013, the average Chinese citizen will be eating 42.6 kg of fish in 2022, representing an average annual increase of 1.5% over the next decade. China as a whole will eat 63 million tons of fish by then (an increase of 26%).

China is also the only country where aquaculture production is larger than wild capture fisheries. According to an FAO/OECD report, aquaculture production will further increase 37% while output from capture fisheries will slide 3% by 2022. China’s aquaculture output will hit 53 million tons, or 63% of global aquaculture output. The report, however, also highlights a slowdown in the growth of aquaculture, from 5.4% in the last decade to 2.4% by 2022. The slowdown will be caused by “water and land constraints,” which also flags, “considerable environmental challenges” that may further slow the rollout of aquaculture. For capture fisheries, the government is limiting volumes while also curbing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, while also encouraging “structural adjustment and efficiency.”

China’s fish imports for human consumption are projected to hit 4.4 million tons by 2022, growing by an average 2.1% annually. The share of imports for domestic fish consumption will rise from 7 to 8%. Exports out of China meanwhile will rise to 10 million tons by 2022. Rising Chinese incomes linked to a “complex interaction” between factors like urbanization and higher living standards as key drivers of growth in consumption of fish and other meat products. Growth in China’s consumption of aquatic products is outpacing growth in domestic production of such products. The shift to urbanization of rural residents is driving consumption among a previously low-level consumption segment of society.

Most Chinese consumers still prefer live or fresh aquatic goods to processed products. This is particularly true for consumers in coastal provinces of East and South China, whether they purchase aquatic products in retail, wet markets or in restaurants. Domestic consumption of processed aquatic products remains relatively small compared to overall domestic aquatic product consumption. Processed aquatic products using domestic raw material (mostly cultured products) is highly export focused.

Freshwater cultured products, such as carp, shrimp and prawns, are popular for home consumption and in restaurants due to their affordability. Seawater aquatic products, including yellow croaker, ribbonfish and squid continue to be favorites in Northern China. Imported seawater products popular domestically include cod, squid, plaice, and mackerel. Processed shellfish/shrimp/prawns and tilapia fillets are increasingly popular among city consumers with busy lifestyles. High-value imported seafood (such as lobster, geoducks, salmon, and crab) is widely used by hotels and restaurants for high-end consumers.

U.S. salmon, American lobster, snow crab legs and cod are all products commonly available in supermarkets and product identification (such as brand names, logo and country of origin) are important tools to attract consumer interest among competing products. Educating retailers and distributors is important to help consumers establish brand recognition and brand loyalty. Consumers’ expectations for food and beverages are increasing as people pursue gourmet food rather than just basic eating for sustenance. These changes are supporting the introduction of U.S. seafood products into China.

The growth of fresh fish and seafood is being strongly driven by the popularity of crustaceans, which have enjoyed 8% annual volume growth over the past three years. Crustaceans, and particularly lobsters, are a favorite choice when eating out in restaurants on special family occasions or when entertaining guests. The share of foodservice in fresh fish and seafood distribution has been slowly increasing, rising from 24% in 2006 to 30% in 2014. 

According to a recent survey by Unilever Food Solutions, over 85% of Chinese consumers eat out at least once a week. Among the urban working population, the rate is much higher. At the high end of the market, however, demand suffered a setback in 2014 due to a government clampdown on the squandering of public funds. This has negatively impacted government employees’ entertainment budgets, with a subsequent drop in sales for luxury seafood items such as abalone, crab and high-end live rock lobsters. (Reduced demand for high-end rock lobster may boost sales for the more affordable American lobster.)

U.S. American lobster, scallops, salmon, Alaskan snow crab legs, king crabs, black cod and oysters are popular items in upscale hotels. FAS/Beijing reports that buffet style restaurants are common in these hotels and it is a good way to promote high-end seafood products to customers. With proper display, customers are attracted to these high-value imported items. Chef demonstrations or themed promotions, particularly during major Chinese holidays such as Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, are effective in the HRI food service sector for sales promotions. Importers claim high value U.S. seafood products can sell in both first and second tier cities but supplies from the U.S. must be consistent to capture consumer interest and demand.  

FAS/Guangzhou reports that increasing the awareness of U.S. fish and seafood quality is important to growing trade. Buyers, chefs and consumers lack awareness. Intensive education campaigns are necessary to promote the quality and value of U.S.-origin seafood versus similar products from alternate suppliers. Educational efforts should capitalize on the U.S. reputation for safe and wholesome food production.

The Chinese foodservice sector is the largest in the world, with 7.3 million outlets and sales valued at US$510.8 billion in 2013. The industry has experienced impressive gains, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.2% since the US$322.6 billion recorded in 2009. Future growth is expected to remain a strong but decelerated 7.6% to 2018, as consumers rein in their spending and the industry works to overcome increasing operating costs as well as the fallout of food safety scares. 

According to Euromonitor, full-service restaurants is the industry's top subsector representing 73% of total foodservice value sales in 2013 with US$374.4 billion, and is expected to remain as such with sales of US$533.7 billion forecast for 2018. Home delivery/takeaway is the fastest growing subsector over both the historic and forecast review periods, with a CAGR of 22.5% from 2009-2013, and 20.6% from 2014-2018.  Independent operators remain the dominant foodservice type in China, representing 91.3% of total sales in 2013, but chained establishments have seen sales grow at a faster rate, with a CAGR of 14.9% from 2009 to 2013. This trend is expected to carry through the forecast period, with chained operators gaining slightly more share to represent 10% of total foodservice sales by 2018.

According to the Agriculture Information Institute at China’s Academy of Agricultural Science, seafood prices have been growing faster than China’s official consumer price index (CPI) and at an average annual rise of 5% between 2000 and 2011 have certainly outpaced price growth in other key food items counted in the CPI, such as vegetables and pork. Aquatic prices rose fastest between 2000 and 2011 - jumping 8% a year - a rise that may be partly explained by soaring prices for luxury seafood products like sea cucumber.

According to FAS, China has one of the most lucrative, dynamic, and rapidly growing retail markets in the world, which continues to grow at a double-digit pace despite a GDP expected to grow just over 7% in 2015 and per capita urban household disposable incomes which grew 9% in 2013. China’s retail growth is underpinned by not only rises to urban household incomes but also by the growing number of urban households themselves.

Where and how the Chinese shop is undergoing a significant transition. Another reason for China’s growing demand is its consumers’ comfort with buying fresh and frozen seafood online. According to FAS, China’s retail e-commerce sales exploded from $3 billion in 2006 to $300 billion in 2013. During the same period, China’s digital shoppers’ population burst from 30 million to 300 million consumers. Young consumers between the ages of 20 to 29 make up more than half of the total digital shopper population.

China’s e-commerce platforms such as,, yummy77 and allow American seafood suppliers to market their high-end seafood products, both live and frozen, directly to consumers across China, especially in second and third-tier cities that do not have access to modern supermarket retailers. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tmall, combined with Alibaba’s site Taobao, handled US$248 billion in transaction volume in 2014, which was a greater transaction volume than for and eBay combined. Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are increasingly adapting to e-commerce and an increasing number of mergers, acquisitions, and strategic partnerships are being announced linking traditional retailers with e-commerce platforms.

According to SeafoodSource trade news, seafood firms are also utilizing e-commerce platforms as distribution margins take over margins previously gained from aquaculture and processing. Some major firms are opening flashy bricks and mortar stores as part of the company’s online strategy: these are meant to complement online sales by giving consumers a place to taste, pick up or purchase online offerings and vice versa.

Factors/Issues Affecting U.S. Sales to China:

Duties on Imported Seafood Products

If imports are re-exported as processed products, they will not be subject to a tariff or value-added tax (VAT). Imports sold in China are subject to tariff and VAT. High import costs, which include a duty plus value-added tax (VAT) approaching 25%, make imports for domestic consumption expensive. Some industry experts are calling for reduced import duties and VAT for seafood species that are not produced in China to encourage more imports for domestic consumption. U.S. exporters need to consult with Chinese importers and Customs for clarification on specifics. Additionally, China may require a “risk assessment” for some fish species entering China for the first time.

Import Controls

Seafood is one of the most highly regulated imported food categories in China – especially for live product. Few registered importing companies can legally handle live seafood imports. All must make a deposit with China Customs for pre-clearance.

  • Import Certificate for Live Edible Aquatic Products Amended - On December 11, 2008, AQSIQ, the food safety competent authority in China, published on its website the “Explanations on Amendments to Rules of Inspection and Quarantine on Entering Edible Aquatic Species.” The amendments require the exporting country to add detailed inspection and quarantine information to the export health certificate. FAS/Beijing, in collaboration with the National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) Seafood Inspection Program, APHIS/Beijing, and Foreign Commercial Service/Beijing held several consultations with AQSIQ on a new certificate. A NOAA amended version of a health certificate for live edible aquatic products was approved by AQSIQ and implemented in 2011.
  • Hygiene Import Certificate for Processed Seafood - As of January 1, 2013, China requires a new hygiene import certificate for processed seafood from the USA.
  • Registration Requirement for the People's Republic of China - AQSIQ has enacted a new requirement for all food importers entitled Public Notice 55. Effective October 1, 2012, AQSIQ requires that all importers register to enable AQSIQ to perform better product traceability within the PRC.
  • Certificate for Shipments of Frozen Seafood - In 2012, AQSIQ and NOAA Seafood Inspection Program (SIP) agreed upon a new certificate format for frozen fishery products destined for China. SIP also implemented a new stamp designed specifically for certificates. For the immediate future SIP will apply this certificate stamp ONLY to the PRC frozen fishery product certificate and not for fishmeal or live products.
  • Product Information & Labeling Decree in Development - Decree 145 took effect in 2013. This Decree, administered by CNCA, another agency of the Chinese government, requires much more information about products and labels. The U.S government provides a list of approved U.S. shippers to AQSIQ on a quarterly basis. The official shippers list does not reside within the U.S. but rather with the foreign Competent Authority. On average, it takes 3 to 5 weeks for CNCA to update their website.
  • Anti-smuggling campaigns are changing seafood trade - According to FAS/Guangzhou, China Customs implemented a series of anti-smuggling measures nationwide in 2012. Customs reported two major successful crackdown cases widely broadcast in the media during March in Guangzhou (mainly for live high value seafood worth $48 million) and April in Shanghai (mainly for high value seafood worth $102 million). Many seafood traders have become more conservative in their purchases and many immediately lowered their inventory to minimum levels to avoid losses and fines. Some traders are also now purchasing through regular channels instead of relying on the grey channels to import high-value products. One area where most of the trade has fully converted to legal imports is in direct live air seafood shipments to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Depending on enforcement methods employed by the China Customs on anti-smuggling, the trade will decide whether to continue import through regular channels or swing back through the traditional grey channel to remain competitive.


Qingdao and Dalian are the two largest arrival ports for aquatic products. Well-established facilities, including processing factories in Qingdao and Dalian, solidify their status as the largest seafood import hubs in China. Aside from the processed-for-export pattern in the North, South China remains the dominant high value imported seafood product consumption center. With the highest incomes in China, passion for seafood dishes, and the presence of a large number of seafood importers, distributors and supporting logistic and storage infrastructure, South China is the main destination for high value seafood.

Most Chinese consumers’ still prefer live or fresh aquatic goods to processed products. Therefore, domestic consumption of processed aquatic products remains relatively small compared to overall domestic aquatic product consumption. Processed aquatic products using domestic raw material (mostly cultured products) has been primarily export focused. There is now a growing trend to produce more frozen and frozen processed goods for interior provinces, as the demand for frozen processed aquatic products by domestic consumers rises. Aquatic processing bases are located in or near major aquatic production regions. The majority of processing facilities are concentrated in Zhejiang, Shandong, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces. Shandong ranks first for processing capacity, followed by Fujian. These provinces are also major aquaculture producers and are equipped with port and cold storage facilities.

Most live seafood imports into China, perhaps as much as 80%, arrive in Shenzhen, which is located just north of Hong Kong and represents the traditional channel for the flow of seafood into Mainland China. Importers situated in Shenzhen dominate many of the seafood import and distribution channels throughout the country. Distribution networks have been developed from here to major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. More than half of the seafood entering Shenzhen is sent to Guangzhou for distribution throughout China from there. Guangzhou has the third largest air transport hub in China (after Beijing and Shanghai).

Wholesale seafood markets traditionally dominate live seafood distribution in China. According to FAO, more than 340 live seafood markets exist across China. Fish brokers rent booths and trade as both wholesalers and retailers. The largest wholesale seafood markets are: the Shenzhen Yantian Seafood Market; Guangzhou’s Huangsha Seafood Wholesale Market; and the Shanghai Tong Chuan Seafood Market. The Guangzhou Huangsha wholesale market is the largest live and high-end seafood market of its kind in all of Mainland China. According to FAS/Guangzhou, Huangsha operates round-the-clock year round and generates over US$3 million in daily sales. Huangsha houses around 300 companies, with 90% of these dealing in the sales of live seafood.

Distributors and sub-distributors normally have stalls at wholesale markets and they often assume the role of warehousing products prior to distribution. Distribution is very competitive and highly-fragmented because it is dominated by many small players. Distributors may sell products through sub-distributors (smaller wholesalers) or directly to hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. Distributors that are not able to access product from the top of the value chain can also be major market players because many play key roles in developing and maintaining customer relationships.

Sales are generally divided into smaller buyers, the HRI sector and retail outlets. Most restaurants keep fish tanks that allow customers to choose their own seafood products. Small restaurants will select products from a wholesaler stall, pay cash and take their purchases away with them. Some small hotels, restaurants and cafes place will place orders for delivery either on a daily basis or frequently throughout the week, and payment is often made on a monthly basis (which is why larger distributors prefer not to sell directly to this sector). Larger chains may purchase products directly from importers.

Supermarkets and larger retailers are a more recent introduction into China and they are becoming important outlets for retailing products, both live and processed. The largest foreign supermarket chains presently in China are: Carrefour (France); Jusco (Japan); Metro (Germany); and Wal-Mart (USA). Hypermarkets such as Metro are developing into true wholesale distributors; receiving product directly from importers for sale to restaurant chefs and small retail outlets.

With a large population of roughly 1.4 billion and a consumer market that continues to evolve through urbanization and rising disposable incomes, China's retail grocery market is also evolving. While traditional wet markets are still present in China, they are increasingly meeting competition from modern grocery retail formats, such as hypermarkets, supermarkets and convenience stores.

Supermarkets and hypermarkets already dominate the markets of some larger cities, and their continued expansion from major cities into smaller cities is expected to further drive competition in the grocery retail sector. Of the various retail channels, hypermarkets are expected to have the most growth potential in the Chinese market and are benefitting from consumer trends toward convenience and evolving modern and urban lifestyles. Convenience stores are also expected to grow along with consumer demand for convenience and rising disposable incomes, while internet retailing continues to expand its presence in the market.

Chinese consumers, lifestyles and cultures are distinct throughout the country's various regions. Grocery retail formats and strategies also vary geographically. Successful grocery retailers have been able to tailor their store format and product offerings that cater to local tastes. As a result, in some markets and grocery categories, domestic companies have an advantage over foreign companies. However, both foreign and domestic companies are notable players in China's expanding grocery retail market.

The emerging high-end hospitality sector; better logistics infrastructure; increased consumer consciousness over food health and safety concerns; and more sophisticated consumer demand is creating new distribution pathways, such as: sourcing direct from importers, the establishment of high-end distributors and specialty focused sub-distributors.

While Chinese consumers still prefer live and fresh seafood products, consumer interest in frozen and processed seafood products is growing as refrigeration capabilities expand. There are few differences between live and frozen seafood distribution channels. There may be more sub-distributors in the frozen seafood supply chain due to extended product life and expanded geographic distribution coverage. The rise in the number, and growing sophistication, of retailers in China is increasing opportunities to promote branded items to the young and affluent, who increasingly to prefer shop at supermarkets.

Consumer preferences vary geographically throughout the country and tastes can differ further within the same depending on proximity to urban centers. In much of inland China, live seafood is scarce due to geographic isolation and underdeveloped cold chain and distribution systems making non-perishable seafood more popular.

Traditional consumption patterns within urban areas appear to be changing to keep pace with changing lifestyles. More families are turning to ready-to-cook, processed products. Processed products, including processed fish and shellfish, are therefore becoming increasingly available in hypermarkets in large cities. Rising incomes, increased ownership of fridges and freezers, more exposure to western and international cuisine and a greater array of retail goods are combining to increase sales of frozen seafood in China.

Chinese shopping patterns are undergoing significant transition. Sales of seafood online through e-malls and online retailers are surging. People shopping online are more educated and more affluent. China’s e-commerce platforms (such as,, yummy77 and allow seafood suppliers to market their high-end seafood products, both live and frozen, directly to consumers across China, especially in second and third-tier cities that may not have access to modern supermarket retailers. Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are increasingly adapting to e-commerce. An increasing number of mergers, acquisitions, and strategic partnerships are being announced linking traditional retailers with e-commerce platforms.


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