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Bleak outlook for Pacific cod and Alaska pollock

11/04/2019

Forecasts show that catches of Pacific cod will be reduced significantly over the next four years. Alaska pollock catches are expected to stagnate or fall. The trade war between the United States of America and China is slowing trade, particularly for Alaska pollock. The outlook is one of consolidation rather than expansion. 

Supplies

Over a year ago, it was predicted that coldwater fish would move north as a result of ocean warming due to climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented the first evidence of this, after registering a 21 percent drop in the Pacific cod biomass in the southeastern Bering Sea and a 95 percent increase in the northern Bering Sea. Data released for the eastern Bering Sea by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) indicate, through a bottom trawl survey, a 33 percent reduction in the Alaska pollock biomass, while acoustic surveys showed an even larger reduction. As a consequence of these surveys, industry observers expected reductions in the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for Alaska pollock for 2019. However, in December the NPFMC increased the TAC for Alaska pollock by 33 000 tonnes to 1 378 411 tonnes. For Pacific cod, the TAC was reduced by 20 000 tonnes to 181 000 tonnes.

The outlook for US Pacific cod fisheries is bleak. A forecast published by NOAA in December, predicted reduced catches in 2020, 2021 and 2022, with 2022 expected to be the low point. After that, biomass and catches should increase. The predicted catch in the eastern Bering Sea is set at 131 000 tonnes in 2020, dropping to 91 100 tonnes in 2021, and bottoming out at 74 500 tonnes in 2022.

The Russian Federation government has announced a slight increase in the TAC for Alaska pollock, from 1.781 million tonnes in 2018 to 1.786 million tonnes in 2019 (+0.3 percent). Producers in the Russian Federation are switching to value-added products in the whitefish sector. According to the head of the Russian Pollock Catchers Association (PCA), Russian Federation output of Alaska pollock fillets, blocks and mince will rise to 224 000 tonnes by 2025, compared to 79 000 tonnes in 2018. Production of H&G Alaska pollock will decline from 610 000 tonnes in 2018 to 388 000 tonnes in 2025, and whole round will decrease from 270 000 tonnes in 2018 to 150 000 tonnes in 2025.

In order to fulfil this ambition, the Russian Federetaion needs to harvest more Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish. In 2018, MSC certified Alaska pollock from Russian fisheries amounted to 761 000 tonnes, less than half of the TAC. This volume was from the Sea of Okhotsk fishery, which is MSC certified. Plans to certify other Alaska pollock fisheries are being made. 

Russian Federation pollock producers plan to increase substantially their share of the European market and push Chinese producers out of the market within some years. In order to achieve this, six new factories will be built to produce high quality Alaska pollock products to compete with Chinese products on quality as well as price. Chinese producers were recently negatively affected by new EU28 requirements on polyphosphates that will reduce EU28 imports of Chinese Alaska pollock fillets, which often contain this additive.

Demand for Cape hake is strong, according to processors in South Africa and Namibia. Fishing has been good in 2018, and prices are stable at a high level after having increased from 2015 to 2017. However, the industry is facing some challenges. Processing is done on land in both South Africa and Namibia, which is more expensive than processing on board. Rises in fuel prices have affected productivity, though they have recently come down slightly. Demand is expected to remain high in the main markets, which are the EU28 and South Africa.

Surimi

Production of tropical surimi is declining. It is estimated that production dropped from 485 000 tonnes in 2017 to    470 000 tonnes in 2018. Total global production of surimi (both tropical and coldwater) could drop to about 800 000 tonnes in 2018, from 820 000 tonnes in 2017 and 850 000 tonnes in 2016. The higher US tariffs on Chinese surimi (initially 10 percent but possibly up to 25 percent later), leave Chinese surimi producers in a difficult position. Prices for raw materials have climbed, both for imported Alaska pollock and for domestic supplies, and with the 25 percent tariff on exports to the United States of America, Chinese producers may not be able to serve that market. However, in Asia there are no tariffs and therefore China could move the focus more to Asian markets instead.

Trade

The EU28 demand for raw material for fish processing is growing, but EU28 fisheries are not able to meet this demand, and have not been able to for years. The deficit is in fact increasing. Consequently, a larger amount has to be imported. To address this, the European Union Commission increased the autonomous tariff quotas (ATQ), a duty free import quota for raw material going to further processing within the EU28, for 2019 and 2020. This means that EU28 fish processors can continue to import raw material for further processing from non-EU28 countries at reduced rates or duty free over the next two years. The ATQs for these two years were increased from 300 000 tonnes to 320 000 tonnes of Alaska pollock.

US President Trump’s “America First” campaign is also affecting the groundfish industry. In December, Republican Senator Dan Sullivan, from the important fisheries state of Alaska, proposed to impose a “buy American” clause in the 2018 Farm Bill, to force producers of school meals to buy American food. While the US Department of Agriculture already has rules that require the National School Lunch Program to serve US-sourced products, the Alaska pollock industry claims that many participants in this programme buy less expensive and inferior quality twice-frozen fillets from the Russian Federation. In the new Farm Bill, several loopholes that allowed this are being closed. The National School Lunch Program is big, some 30 million children are served lunch daily under this programme. 

In response to higher US tariffs on a number of products, China imposed retaliatory tariffs on Alaska pollock products, and this has offset heavy losses for some Alaska producers. In an attempt to ease the situation, the US Government decided to purchase USD 30 million worth of Alaska pollock, which will be distributed to various nutrition assistance programmes. The trade war between the United States of America and China was put on hold in early December as China and the United States of America agreed to not impose further tariffs for a period of 90 days. While cod and Alaska pollock fillets are removed from the list of products that would be subject to the extra 10 percent tariff, haddock is still on the list. This has made Chinese buyers stop buying haddock for processing and export to the United States of America.

During the first nine months of 2018, there was a drop in Chinese imports of frozen cod. The imported volume declined by 20 percent to 105 000 tonnes. The main loser among the suppliers were the United States of America, which experienced a drop of over 33 percent, from 42 000 tonnes during the ninemonth period in 2017, to 28 000 tonnes during the same period in 2018. Chinese imports of frozen Alaska pollock also weakened in the first three quarters of 2018. Imports declined from 542 000 tonnes in 2017 to 471 000 tonnes in 2018. This was almost exactly the same as in 2016. As much as 94 percent of imported frozen Alaska pollock in 2018 came from the Russian Federation. German imports of frozen Alaska pollock fillets increased slightly in 2018 to 112 000 tonnes, with a slight increase in shipments from the largest supplier, China, from 51 000 tonnes in 2017 to 54 000 tonnes in 2018.

Prices

The uncertainty about whether haddock will be subject to the extra 10 percent tariffs imposed by the United States of America has slowed down sales of haddock to China by Norwegian and Russian Federation producers. Prices have dropped by USD 50–100 per tonne, to about USD 3 300–3 400 per tonne. Meanwhile, prices for H&G cod are stable at a high level, around USD 4 400–4 500 per tonne.

There is some concern that these high cod prices may affect the market negatively. With the reduced TAC for cod in the Barents Sea, down by 6.5 percent to 725 000 tonnes for 2019, prices could come under pressure, but observers believe that cod prices have reached a ceiling. Alaska pollock prices are expected to go up due to tighter supplies.

Outlook

There is a lot of uncertainty in the market due to the trade war between China and the United States of America. While it is on hold at the moment, it is by no means over. It is a short pause to catch the parties’ breath. Global trade faces a number of uncertainties because of this development, and the effects are beginning to be noticeable in terms of changing trade patterns and attempts to open new markets.

In addition, the outlook for some groundfish species is a little bleaker now than it was a short while ago. Pacific cod will see significant catch reductions, and the TAC for Atlantic cod in the Barents Sea has been reduced. In addition, the outlook for Alaska pollock is not promising, in spite of the 33 000 tonne increase in the Bering Sea. So in the medium term, the stage is set for price increases or product substitutions, since for example cod prices are already high. 2019 may be a tough year for the groundfish sector.

One of the drivers for the success of farmed salmon has been the predictability in supplies. A similar predictability could be achieved for cod if a combination of supplies from wild catch, “semifarmed” and farmed cod could be organized. Wildcaught cod can be kept alive in pens for about three months, and thus released on the market when supplies of wild cod are low. It is unlikely that Alaska pollock surimi will be able to meet demand, given the pessimistic outlook for the Alaska pollock fishery in the next couple of years. Consequently, prices are expected to go up. The increase in the TAC for the eastern Bering Sea by 33 000 tonnes was unexpected, and it is believed that it will be lowered in the next 3–4 years. 

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