Tale of lobsters and China trade
A growing appetite in China for the Florida spiny lobster has prompted changes in the local industry affecting everyone in the supply chain from fishermen to exporters.
While the increased demand from China has been good news for fishermen in the Florida Keys who can sell their harvest at higher prices, it has also put more pressure on local exporters who are facing more competition for the product.
“It’s been fantastic for fishermen. They’ve made a ton of money,” said Gary Graves, vice president of lobster and stone crab exporter Keys Fisheries in Marathon.
On a good week fishermen may be selling their harvest for $20 per pound fresh off their boats, experts said. That’s better than the $8 per pound price for the much bigger Maine lobster.
Yet, the growing demand in China has increased competition among exporters for the product.
“There’s X number of lobster, so if you have 15 people fighting for it instead of six people fighting for it, it’s just more competition,” Mr. Graves said. “You work for less money. Some will be pushed out of business.”
Mr. Graves said the Florida Keys industry was until recently comprised of local exporters who have been in business for decades, much like his Keys Fisheries. But the demand in China for the Florida spiny lobster has prompted Chinese families and companies to set up shop in the Florida Keys and export the product back to their home country. That, too, has squeezed exporters.
“They are doing it direct themselves,” Mr. Graves said.
Florida, and particularly Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, is a hotbed for the spiny lobster. The lobster is harvested seasonally from August to March.
Harvests have been steady in recent years, reaching a peak of 6.9 million pounds in 2013 just from the Florida Keys.
What’s changed is the amount diverted from some markets and directed to China and other countries in Asia.
“We’ve always exported a tremendous amount of our lobster since the 1980s, but China is getting more and Europe is getting less because the economy in Europe is not good,” Mr. Graves said. “China has a growing economy and they like live lobster, so they started buying here.”
If the value of the spiny lobster take is any indication, the US as a whole is exporting much more lobster year after year. In 2013, the US exported about $7.3 million of the spiny lobster to China, up from about $3.2 million the previous year, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. That’s specifically for spiny lobster exported live to China. The country demands live product.
The main locations for spiny lobsters in the US are California and Florida, but local experts say California doesn’t have nearly as much production as Florida.
Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said the uptick in demand by Chinese consumers for the Florida spiny lobster became noticeable about four years ago when China had logistics issues with its previous main spiny lobster importer, Australia.
“The Chinese have a very robust economy. They want fresh – meaning live – spiny lobster, which we are able to provide,” Mr. Kelly said. “The relationship has grown exponentially over the years.”