N.S. lobster shipments to China drop ‘dramatically’ due to coronavirus

The coronavirus is putting the brakes on Nova Scotia lobster sales and shipments to China, which is a crucial market for Nova Scotia lobster exporters.

Coronavirus is a flu-like illness that can cause pneumonia and other severe respiratory symptoms. There have been more than 100 deaths worldwide because of the virus, while there are more than 4,500 confirmed cases in China, which is where the outbreak began.

Exporter Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster said the sharp drop in lobster exports to China happened in a matter of days.

“We’ve seen them diminish dramatically to the point that as of yesterday and today they’re almost non-existent,” he said.

“There’s a recognition that the coronavirus is a significant health issue in mainland China. Under those circumstances, there aren’t the normal people in the shops and the restaurants and the cafés.

A staff member checks the temperature of a passenger entering a subway station in Beijing as China battles to contain the coronavirus outbreak. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

“The so-called wet markets, the seafood markets, are essentially shut down in the short term and the government is encouraging people not to travel as they try to contain this virus.”

The days surrounding the Chinese New Year are normally a slow period for lobster exports to China, but it’s being made much worse because of coronavirus.

Lamont said the price at the wharf has also dropped in recent days from over $10 a pound to around $8.

‘It’s not a panic yet’

Leo Muise of the Nova Seafood Alliance said he’s heard similar stories from other members of the industry.

“The market has been reduced greatly since Saturday,” he said. “It’s not a regulatory problem, it’s a market problem. The citizens and people are restricted in travel and they are not going out to eat. It’s not a panic yet, but it is concerning.”

Exporters continue to ship live lobsters all over the world.

On Tuesday, Lamont’s company loaded lobster for cargo flights to Belgium and South Korea.

Huge sales to China

China overtook the United States as the largest market for Canadian live lobster from August through October last year, continuing a trend of significantly rising sales to the Asian country following the advent of a trade war between the superpowers.

Canadian live lobster sales to China outpaced those to the U.S. by $65 million during the three months, according to the latest export data released by Statistics Canada.

All told, $384 million of Canadian lobster was sold to China in the first 10 months of 2019, compared to $428 million for the U.S.

A trade deal between China and the U.S. was signed earlier this month. It does not reduce the 35 per cent tariff that was previously slapped on U.S. lobsters, but China has pledged to buy $32 billion worth of American agricultural products over the next two years, including lobster and other seafood products.

Impact at Halifax airport

Halifax Stanfield International Airport spokesperson Leah Batstone said flights from Skylease, a cargo carrier flying lobster directly to China, have been temporarily impacted because of coronavirus.

“This could impact two to three weekly cargo flights containing seafood products that normally go out of Halifax Stanfield to the Chinese market,” she said in a statement to CBC News.

“Skylease has advised they expect these flights to be impacted at least for the next few weeks and we continue to be in close contact with all our freight forwarding partners as we monitor the situation.”

Batstone said during peak times of the year, seven to eight weekly cargo flights depart the airport with seafood products for Asian markets. 

The value of these flights varies by market price — a 747 freighter can transport around 100 tonnes of product when it’s full.

In 2018, Nova Scotia seafood exports by air were valued at $232 million annually.

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