GLOBEFISH - Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade

COVID-19 sending lobster market into collapse

08/07/2020

At the beginning of the year, the outlook for the lobster industry was indeed rosy. Demand was strong, prices were high, and production looked promising. Then came the COVID-19 outbreak, and the main market, China, closed just as the most important consumption period, Chinese New year, was beginning. Since then, market conditions have deteriorated, and prices have fallen. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. China is slowly opening up again, demand is picking up, and trade is beginning to recover.

Supplies

COVID-19 is having the same effect on all lobster producers, resulting in lower production, due to extremely weak demand. State authorities in Maine, United States of America, have stopped enforcing the rule that lobster traps must not be left in the water for more than 30 days. The reason is that they want to discourage harvesting as well as encourage social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maine Department of Marine Resources does not close the fishery, but strongly discourages harvesting, as market demand has dropped dramatically, and a further supply is expected to put pressure on prices.

In South Africa, lobster harvesting came to a virtual standstill in February, as the Chinese market closed. As much as 90 percent of the South African rock lobster catch is exported to China. In Canada, there has also been calls for stopping harvesting temporarily until the market recovers. Australian exporters were equally affected, as China is by far the dominating market for Australian rock lobster. As much as 95 percent of South Australia’s lobster exports go to China. Australian lobster harvesters are trying to adapt to the new market situation by reducing their quotas, and in Tasmania, authorities have announced that they will allow a quota roll-over to next year. Therefore, lobster harvesters who had not caught their quota due to the sudden market changes will be allowed to add this amount to their quota for the next season, which started on 1 March 2020.

International trade

Global lobster trade declined slightly in 2019 compared to 2018. Chinese imports increased moderately, while American imports were stable. On the exporting side, Canada took over market share from the United States of America. Canadian exports increased by 14 percent in 2019 over 2018, to 97 500 tonnes, while American exports declined by almost 21 percent, to 42 400 tonnes. The United States of America’s exports to China were almost halved and dropped to just under 5 000 tonnes. In the European Union, imports were stable at almost 25 000 tonnes, the major supplier being Canada.

Exports of lobster to China stopped in late 2020, when China closed its borders, and both Maine and Canadian exporters felt the crunch. Shipments to Europe are also down significantly as restaurants closed down in several countries due to COVID-19. In addition, domestic sales of lobsters in the United States of America have dropped because many states and cities have also closed all restaurants. Now, China seems to be in control of the situation, and has re-opened its border for shipments.

Nova Scotia exporters have sent the first shipments on a trial basis to test the Chinese market. As Tasmanian lobster exporters were shut out of the China market, they turned their attention to the local market, and to their surprise found that local demand was indeed very good. Apparently, lobster traders have been too focused on the China market and have ignored the local market potential.

Jamaican exporters have shipped live lobster to China for some time but are now instead shipping some quantities as frozen lobsters. However, the closing of the Chinese market has led to reduced activity and lay-offs of local workers in Jamaica.

Prices

With lobster sales shrinking, inventories have grown. This is also not good for prices, as large inventories put pressure on prices all over. Export prices for Vietnamese lobster to the Chinese market dropped in February, and Vietnamese traders had to turn to the local market, where they sold their lobsters at a loss. Some improvements were recorded for March 2020, as the Chinese market was slowly recovering. 

The United States of America’s lobster prices hit four year low levels just as Chinese New year was starting, a period normally characterized by strong demand and high prices. Maine lobster prices have dropped by 20 percent since January 2020. Wholesale prices for New England “halves”, a whole lobster weighing 1.5 lb, dropped by almost 20 percent to a little over USD 8.00 per lb, the lowest since 2016.

Unlike Maine, Florida produces spiny lobster and has seen prices and demand crash in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prices tumbled from USD 10 to USD 6 per lb at a time when prices would normally be high, even as high as USD 20 per lb during Chinese New Year.

Outlook

Life will return to normal. It could take many months, depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic is handled in Europe and North America. The worst appears to be over in China, as trade is slowly resuming. The economic effects of the pandemic are still largely unknown. For a typical luxury product like lobster, the market consequences of an economic downturn will be dramatic. The economic impacts of COVID-19 are still unknown in China, the major world market for live lobster.

For the major producers, the effects will be varied. American lobster exporters will continue to be hurt as a result of the China – US trade conflict, which is expected to continue with changing conditions, and initiatives by the two parties. Canadian exporters stand to benefit from this trade conflict and will probably strengthen their position on the Chinese market. In Europe, recovery from the pandemic is expected to take longer than in China, and therefore sales are not expected to recover as rapidly as in China. The same goes for the American market, where the pandemic has not yet reached its peak. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to get dramatic in the United States of America, and both purchasing power and trade will be suffering.

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