August 14, 2008

Higher shipping costs are affecting the global seafood economy


The global seafood economy has become so integrated with the American palate that the year-round availability of fish like grouper and tuna is no longer remarkable.

But higher transportation costs are upping the ante in international trade. 

At what point those costs might offset the cheaper production prices of fish and shellfish shipped to the United States from other countries is unknown, but escalating shipping costs have already sparked a rise in American steel and furniture production after decades of decline. 

When Asian countries began ramping up aquaculture capabilities and expanding commercial fishing fleets in the late 1990s, oil prices had hit lows that were about one-twelfth the cost today.

Cheap oil, combined with low labor costs and industry-friendly regulatory standards, added up to an economic environment favorable for the development of global supply chains to markets in the U.S., now the world’s third largest consumer of seafood in the world, behind only China and Japan.

By 2007, imported fish and shellfish accounted for 84 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S., according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Seafood imports reached 2,425,084 metric tons, valued at $13.7 billion last year.

Close to half of those imports came from China, Thailand, Indonesia, and other Asian countries.

But higher transportation costs are likely to result in a significant slowdown in the growth of world trade and a realignment of trade patterns, according to a study completed by Canadian investment bank CIBC World Markets earlier this year.

The study reported that the cost of shipping a 40-foot container from China to the U.S. increased from $3,000 in 2003 to $8,000 this year.  That cost would jump to $15,000 if oil goes to $200 a barrel.

CIBC reported that transportation costs are now a bigger barrier to global trade than tariffs.

“In fact, in tariff-equivalent terms, the explosion in global transport costs has effectively offset all the trade liberalization efforts of the last three decades,” CIBC reported.

The global seafood economy is hardly a one-way street, so higher transportation costs also impact seafood shipped out of the U.S.

In 2007, the U.S. exported 1,263,778 tons of seafood, valued at $4 billion.  About one-third of those exports went to countries in the European Union and Japan. 

Some of those exports, such as salmon and Dungeness crab, are sent to China by large U.S. seafood companies, such as Trident Seafoods in Seattle, for filleting, boning or shelling, and then shipped back to the U.S. 

One consumer advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, estimated that more than 70 percent, in round weight, of U.S. wild-caught and farmed seafood is exported.

Although no database tracks the destination points for North Carolina seafood, some fish landed in Dare County are exported to other countries.

Croaker, bluefish, and squid are sent to Europe from Moon Tillett Fish Company in Wanchese.

“We load them right here at the fish house, and the containers are shipped out of Norfolk,” explained Billy Carl Tillett.

Tony Burbank, manager of Avon Seafood in Hatteras, said king mackerel is exported to Canada and spiny dogfish wind up in countries like Great Britain and Germany.

Burbank said that in the late 1990s the docks in Hatteras were flush with graders sizing up bluefin tuna for the premium sushi grade market in Japan.

“But most of our fish stay in the U.S.,” said Burbank. 

He said species , such as Spanish mackerel, pompano, sheepshead, and flounder that are caught this time of the year, are sent to Fulton Fish Market in New York, a consortium of 37 seafood wholesale businesses.

Tillett said his company also ships large volumes of fish to the New York market, usually to wholesalers he has dealt with for many years.

“But sometimes you deal.  It usually works out that everybody is calling when there aren’t any fish, and the phone doesn’t ring when there are plenty,” Tillett said.

Tillett ships fish and blue crabs to Virginia, Baltimore, and Philadelphia too.

And Dare County fish are also sold to North Carolina companies that run distribution routes for spot, croaker, sea mullet, and other species to retailers in this state, Virginia, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia.

Tillett estimated that about 50 percent of his fresh croaker is sold to North Carolina distributors.

“We try to keep the local fellows supplied.  Sometimes New York can be out of control when there are lots of fish, and sometimes the local markets are worth more when you consider freight costs,” he said.

Burbank said Avon Seafood also sells fish and shrimp to restaurants and retail stores on Hatteras Island.

“We like to do that. We like tourists to experience North Carolina seafood,” Burbank said.

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