Tilapia exports hit hard by COVID-19


The Chinese tilapia sector, which has been struggling to make headway in a lukewarm US market for several years, was hit hard by a 25 percent tariff on US-bound imports in 2019. Although these tariffs were lifted in April 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak is negatively affecting both markets and suppliers.


The most recent estimates for global farmed tilapia production in 2019 are those reported at the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) conference in Chennai, India in late October, which put the year’s total at around 6.5 million tonnes. This would represent an increase of some 3-4 percent compared with 2018, driven by increased harvests in the major producing countries despite some diseaserelated losses in Asia. China remains the largest supplier by some distance, accounting for around 26 percent of total production, but more rapid expansion has been taking place in other countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. Chinese product is typically low priced frozen tilapia destined primarily for the US market. This low margin industry is beginning to be squeezed out by other sectors in the competitive development environment in South China and particularly in Hainan province.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s powerful agriculture industry has been investing in tilapia production and in 2019 Brazilian harvests increased by some 8 percent to reach 432 149 tonnes. Tilapia now represents more than half of the country’s total aquaculture production.

Markets and trade

Imports into the United States of America, the world’s largest tilapia market, totalled 172 533 tonnes of tilapia worth USD 591.7 million in 2019. These figures represent a decrease of 8.5 percent in terms of volume and 13.9 percent in terms of value compared with 2018. Frozen tilapia fillets accounted for 61.7 percent of the share in terms of volume (172 534 tonnes) and 66 percent in terms of value at USD 390.4 million. This product form showed declines in both import volume (-13.7 percent) and value (-15.7 percent). Fresh fillets also showed lower import figures when compared to 2018 (-8.12 percent in tonnes and -16 percent in USD).

A general weakening of demand for tilapia, compounded by the 25 percent tariff on Chinese origin imports, was driving the downward trend. Consumption has been stagnating as tilapia struggles to compete with other seafood options. In the European Union, a period of low prices combined with the Chinese tilapia tariff in the United States of America, led to a 22 percent increase year-on-year in both import volume and value in 2019, reaching 29 600 tonnes worth EUR 67 million. China’s share of this value jumped from 67 percent in 2018 to 75 percent in 2019 as exporters sought to offload volumes that would otherwise be destined for the US market. Compared with 2018, the volume of tilapia exports increased by 19 percent. In terms of value, fillets make up the majority of Brazil’s exports, accounting for 57 percent of the total. By volume, byproducts, such as skins, scales, oils and meals are the most heavily traded product, representing 80 percent of the volume. The United States of America, importing mainly fresh tilapia fillets, remains the most important market for the Brazilian tilapia export industry.


Tilapia prices have been following a downward trend over the last year, with 500-800g and 300-500 g fish falling to around USD 1.05 and USD 0.77 per kg respectively in Guangdong, China as of the end of 2019. These prices represent declines of USD 0.28 for the larger size and USD 0.42 for the smaller size compared with the peaks in 2019. Meanwhile, export prices for frozen whole tilapia fell some 9 percent year-on-year to just above USD 2 per kg. In early 2020, a drop in volumes out of China has seen prices increase somewhat.


In early 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak in China and the containment measures that followed led to delayed tilapia production, feed shortages, limited processing activity and weakened markets worldwide. Although the situation had improved by March, many factories were slow to return to full operational capacity as of the end of April due to restrictions on worker movements and lack of demand. As a result, mature fish were left in the ponds and many farmers have been unable to stock juveniles for the next farming cycle.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, tilapia production forecasts for 2020 were for an increase of around 4.4 percent. All stakeholders have been affected by the restrictions in 2020, however, and significant adjustments must be made to the outlook. Uncertainty is dominating business activities due to the wide-ranging impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic and prices are weak. Although foodservice demand has been hit, marketers are reporting good demand for frozen retail products due to the COVID-19 restrictions keeping people at home. In the long run, economic contraction is likely to increase demand to lower priced seafood options such as tilapia.

In Brazil, the Brazilian Fish Farming Association (PEIXE BR) urged the government to implement emergency measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and prevent an economic crisis. PEIXE BR requested to immediately suspend some taxes on producers to reduce the additional price burden. Credit access for farmers was also requested. Due to lower travel confidence globally, Mexican tilapia production will decline by 80% as this production is targeting mainly the restaurant sector in tourist areas. 

Chinese producers and processors saw operations slow considerably during the worst of the pandemic and even as the restrictions have been loosened market activity has remained subdued both domestically and abroad. At the same time, however, the lifting of the 25 percent tariff on Chinese imports into the United States of America equates to a significant margin boost to the Chinese industry that may soften the blow somewhat. Alternative suppliers such as the Latin American producers are still focusing primarily on fresh tilapia fillets, while potential competitors in the Chinese dominated frozen segment are wary of investing heavily considering the temporary nature of the current situation.

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