President and founder of the Sea Fare Group, Peter Redmayne, has been running the China Fisheries & Seafood Expo for 18 years.
In this time he has seen the country, the seafood industry, and the show change dramatically, he told Undercurrent News, in the latest in our seafood entrepreneur series.
“A trade show is just a reflection of the market, and yeah, it's changed a lot,” he said.
“The country's changed so much there, it's built so many things, it's grown so fast. The Chinese, with the growing middle classes, love eating out, and they love fish.”
While there has always been a growing demand for imported seafood in China, the last five years have seen the country maintain a 20% growth in import value, he said.
Before this, in the 1990s, when the expo was just getting started, China had very light tariffs on imported seafoods, and they also had a system of duty-free quotas.
“China used to be dominated by state-owned companies, there were maybe five of them: China National Fisheries, Qingdao Fisheries, Dalian Fisheries...and those companies are still around, but back at that time they were dominant,” said Redmayne.
“The Chinese government wanted to encourage them to go out, fish on the high seas, and do joint ventures abroad.”
“Say they caught 10,000 tons off of Morocco, they could bring 10,000t back to China duty free.”
One thing to remember about China, said Redmayne, is that the reports of import value growth are just that – the reported value.
“There's still a lot of seafood that enters China through Hong Kong, through grey channels,” he said.
“There are still live items, on probably 25% duty, so there's incentive to under-report value. If your competitor is under-reporting his imports then, if you want to be competitive in the markets, you need to do it too. So China's actually importing a lot more seafood than trade figures indicate.”
Gap in the market
One thing that is changing, at both the expo and in the market, is the degree to which the Chinese love live fish.
Live crab, lobster and fish were all the rage, but now China is seeing a steady increase in consumption of convenience products, said Redmayne.
There's a very large middle class now and unless there's huge economic upheaval I don't see that trend changing, it's been a steady trend for quite a while
“Instead of having to go out and buy a whole live fish, they buy a pre-portioned fillet which they can cook. So you're seeing a much broader array of products arriving,” he said.
Already Vietnamese pangasius fillets are gaining popularity there, and he predicts that more and more time-saving fish portions will enter China as the growing middle class becomes more prosperous.
“As they gain more disposable income, they eat out more. There's a very large middle class now and unless there's huge economic upheaval I don't see that trend changing, it's been a steady trend for quite a while.”
Redmayne is impressed by the speed with which a market can grow once China gets a taste for a product.
“[New Zealand fishing company] Sanford has a scampi, which they started doing in China as a give-away – whenever somebody bought a BMW they got a case of scampi,” he said.
“Within a year half of their production was going to China instead of their traditional markets.”
As for the future of the China expo, the plan is to continue with the existing formula. 2013 will see the 18th show, and an anniversary celebration is being planned for the 20th, but in the meantime the show is mainly contending with expanding venues.
The guy who owned the Fisherman's Journal decided he wanted to do a magazine in addition to the newspaper, and since I wasn't making any money fishing...
“We're outgrowing convention centers, in Qingdao they've built another hall to accommodate the show,” said Redmayne.
“A higher percentage of the exhibitors at the show now are overseas companies. It used to be 70%, 80% Chinese companies, but we've had a lot of growth amongst the overseas pavilions. Now almost every country that produces seafood is interested in expanding existing markets in China or developing them.”
Before the expo
After going to graduate school on Rhode Island in the US, Redmayne got a job as an observer on a fishing boat working for the National Fisheries service.
“When I got back I wrote a piece for the Alaska Fisherman's Journal on what it was like being an observer on a Japanese fishing boat. The guy that owned the paper liked that piece and commissioned another piece on Bristol Bay salmon,” he said.
“In the course of doing that, talking to one of the fishermen up there, he said if ever there was a fishery that could be described as easy as falling off a log, it's fishing for herring. So I decided that might be something worth trying, so we put together a little operation and built herring skiffs.”
After three years of working in the herring business, struggling with prices $1,000 lower than they had been the previous year due to the Hokusho herring-roe collapse, he had a decision to make.
“The guy who owned the Fisherman's Journal decided he wanted to do a magazine in addition to the newspaper, and since I wasn't making any money fishing...”
Seafood Leader started up around 1981, in part because to meet a gap in decent information for seafood buyers.
“We figured that was a good niche, that sellers and producers would advertise and support a magazine that helped to educate the buyers,” said Redmayne.
“I was editor and publisher of that from '81 to '98, until the partner sold the magazines.”
Next was the Sea Fare trade show, first held in Los Angeles in 1984, which prompted the Chinese ministry of agriculture to approach Redmayne and his Sea Fare Group about setting up a Chinese show.
Now in its eighteenth year, Dalian 2013 promises to be bigger, and more important to overseas exhibitors, than ever.