Every Sunday for the past seven months, about 60,000 live North American lobsters make the flight to Asia.
Trip from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Shanghai via South Korea has become a weekly routine this year with a surge in demand from China, where lobsters caught in North Atlantic waters are at least one-third the cost of competing supplies. As a result, exports have skyrocketed from Canada and the U.S., the world’s top producers, and American prices are the highest ever.
With no lobster industry of its own, China had relied mostly on Australian imports to satisfy growing demand as its middle class expanded. When the catch began shrinking off Western Australia, and a 2012 glut in the Gulf of Maine sent prices plunging in the U.S. that year, it became more attractive for the world’s most-populous nation to buy from halfway around the world.
"When the domestic market collapsed, we looked farther and farther" for buyers, said Stephanie Nadeau, who shipped 2.5 million pounds last year to China. "I never sold a lobster to China until 2010. It was the really low price and the dealer’s desperation here because we had high catches and a god-awful economy. We had to move the lobster."
U.S. exports to China rose to 8,560 metric tons last year, up 22-fold from 2009, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Shipments already are up 12 percent in 2015.
Chinese importers shopping on Alibaba.com can buy live Canadian lobsters for $6 to $10 a pound, compared with $20 to $33 for Australia's Southern rock lobsters.
Increased demand from Asia provided a new outlet for U.S. producers who saw prices drop after their catches expanded by 66 percent in the decade through 2013 to 68,000 tons.
For now, there's no sign of Chinese demand slowing. China’s middle class may surge to 1 billion people by 2030 from about 150 million last year, boosting incomes that will drive demand for all kinds of higher-value foods. The country already consumes 35 percent of the world’s seafood, and by 2019 will boost consumption of all crustaceans, including crab and shrimp, by 50 percent from last year.