New suppliers challenging China’s tilapia dominance


Even before the pandemic, a variety of factors have been dragging on the growth of the Chinese tilapia sector for some years now. At present, with the addition of soaring freight costs to China’s challenges, producers in Latin America have redoubled their expansion efforts.


The most recent projections for total tilapia growth in 2021 were those presented at the North Atlantic Seafood Forum’s (NASF) global whitefish summit in June of this year. According to NASF figures, tilapia harvests should increase by some 150 000 tonnes globally, equivalent to a year-on-year increase of around 2 percent. This forecast reflects the expected resumption of harvesting activity in major producing regions amidst an improved market environment relative to 2020. However, it is not clear to what extent the unusually hot summer in China’s southern farming provinces, and a number of factory shutdowns due to Delta variant outbreaks, has affected total output.

China accounts for just over 20 percent of global tilapia production but its share has been declining as producers in other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America have been posting significantly more rapid growth rates. Areas of Hainan and Guangdong historically used for tilapia farming are now being targeted for tourism development, while rising input costs present an additional challenge. On the market side, access to the United States of America has become more difficult due to the tariff regime and the worldwide container shortage, while other regions such as Africa traditionally supplied by China are investing heavily in domestic production.

In contrast, the Latin American tilapia aquaculture sector has been rapidly growing. The Brazilian tilapia industry continues to expand at an impressive pace, with Brazil now the fourth largest producer worldwide. The Brazilian government approved a law on the use of national waters for aquaculture at the end of 2020, which is anticipated to facilitate and speed up planning procedures and project approvals. Some observers project growth of up to 500 percent over the next decade. Fish consumption has increased since the beginning of the pandemic and the Brazilian real is now devalued, favouring exporters. Together with the Brazilian Export Promotion Agency (APEX Brazil), the sector is planning for further export industry development and expansion into new markets, with producers emphasizing the importance of restoring access to the European Union after a three-year ban on Brazilian farmed fish imports.

In Colombia, the Ministry of Agriculture is strongly focused on promoting exports, including those from aquaculture. There has been an increase in tilapia production centres across the country driven by demand from the US market. In Costa Rica, however, a decline in competitiveness due to high production costs has seen some producing companies close their tilapia operations. Meanwhile, fish farmers are focusing their efforts on supplying the local market and are working together to improve processing capacity at the industry level.

Trade and Markets

The US tilapia market has been facing some significant challenges such as logistical delays, high freight costs and raw material shortages. Chinese producers have full orders and in some cases cannot meet growing demand, a situation that has been compounded by the shutdown of some factories due to Delta variant outbreaks. In this environment, some suppliers are focusing on the Chinese domestic market which seems more attractive.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), total US tilapia imports during the first half of 2021 dropped 11.4 percent in terms of volume compared to the same period of last year, to 81 224 tonnes, while value declined 6.3 percent to USD 281.3 million. China, the main supplier, exported 50 556 tonnes worth USD 133 million to the United States of America, respective decreases of 19.4 percent and 18.4 percent compared with the first six months of 2020. This presented an opportunity to Latin American suppliers, since Honduras, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil increased their shipments of tilapia to this market.

Brazilian aquaculture exports grew by a remarkable 83 percent during the second quarter of the year compared to the same period in 2020. The United States of America is the main market for Brazilian tilapia, followed by China and Chile. Cumulative Brazilian tilapia exports in the first half of the year came to USD 7.2 million (+35 percent compared with 2020).

While tilapia has benefitted from its position as a cheaper retail seafood option amidst the broader shift in consumer behaviour during the pandemic, in many markets it is now increasingly being marketed as a premium product with sustainability credentials. In the United States of America, Latin American fresh tilapia competes with Chinese frozen tilapia only to a limited extent, with fresh product from Latin America commanding a far higher price than the frozen product. The same tilapia companies are now actively targeting European consumers with a similar product, bolstered by Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification. This is an approach that differs markedly with the high-volume, low-priced strategy that has so far failed to establish the species in this lucrative market. In Colombia, the Colombian Federation of Aquaculture (FEDEACUA) and the foreign trade promotion agency (PROCOLOMBIA) have launched a new quality and sustainability label for the aquaculture sector to generate new export opportunities, in both North America and Europe.


In China, production issues and demand from the domestic market is helping to push prices up. Live tilapia(DAP, Guangdong) of size 300-500 g was selling for CNY 7.65 (USD 1.19) per kg in September, compared with CNY 5.78 (USD 0.90) per kg in the same month last year. US import prices for frozen fillets and fresh fillets were up 8 and 10 percent respectively over the same timeframe.


Chinese production is expected to be higher in the second half of 2021, but prices are forecast to remain firm. The domestic market will remain the focus for now, but some relief from duties and logistical challenges may be on the horizon for exporters targeting the United States of America. The current US administration will reopen talks with China to try and resolve ongoing trade issues, nevertheless the tariffs currently imposed on USD 350 billion worth of Chinese goods will remain in place for the time being, but the authorities intend to reopen the door for US companies to apply for exemptions from the current tariff regime. Even with a resumption of normal United States of America-China trade, however, Latin American producers can be expected to continue gaining market share.

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