By Jason Holland, SeafoodSource contributing editor reporting from London

The seafood industry is more of a global business than any other animal protein sector but trade flows are in constant flux, according to a new seafood trade map and report compiled by Rabobank International.

With an estimated traded value of USD 140 billion (EUR 132 billion) in 2014, exports have nearly doubled in value in the last five years, said Rabobank. This growth comes from the rise of aquaculture, but can also be explained by processing in regions with lower labor costs and rising prices on a per unit level.

In the coming years, China is expected to maintain its leading role as a seafood exporter, but other growing export-oriented aquaculture countries such as Norway, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Ecuador are also positioned to further boost exports.

“The industry is very diverse and offers a wide range of products, with each having its own export and import markets. Mapping these trade flow patterns illustrates the international nature of the industry and the importance of trade,” stated the report.

Globally, the EU remains the largest seafood buyer by value, importing seafood worth over USD 26 billion (EUR 24.5 billion) in 2013, which is almost USD 10 billion (EUR 9.4 billion) higher than in 2005. Rabobank said this value growth is based exclusively on the increasing value per unit of the imported seafood, as there has been virtually no growth in the EU’s import volumes for close to a decade.

A similar development is seen in the United States – the second-largest seafood importer – where imports of USD 19 billion (EUR 17.9 billion) show strong value growth, but volume growth is marginal.

Nevertheless, both of these markets have performed substantially better than Japan. In the early 2000s, Japan was the leading seafood importer, but a declining population – combined with falling per capita seafood consumption and the depreciating yen, which has made imports more expensive – has resulted in a long-term contraction in imports.

Changing China

In volume terms, China has surpassed all import regions other than the EU, although its imports are in part made up of relatively low-value commodities destined for processing and re-export, said Rabobank.

In terms of exports, China is the clear world leader, achieving a total value of USD 20 million (EUR 18.9 billion) in 2013, which was twice as much as Norway, the No. 2 global exporter. While Norwegian exports are primarily destined for the EU, the Chinese seafood industry exports a great variety of products to nearly every country in the world.

Between 2000 and 2013, Chinese exports grew by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15 percent in value terms. In the same period, imports expanded slower than exports and consequently expanded China’s net trade position.

“Aquaculture, a large reprocessing industry and increasingly affluent domestic consumers are the key reasons why China is by far the biggest player on the world seafood stage. China remains the leading exporter in the seafood industry and is also a key importer of several products, such as fishmeal to feed its large fish farming industry,” said the report.

However, Rabobank expects that it is only a matter of time before the Chinese net export position begins to reverse.

“The drivers are all in place: a growing middle class – demanding higher-value seafood from distant regions (e.g. salmon from Norway) – and rising labor and land costs that erode the competiveness of exports. In addition, Chinese producers are increasingly aware that the domestic market for products such as shrimp and tilapia offers better prices than the foreign market.

“We expect China to increasingly import high-end seafood products in the future, while its seafood production industry will focus more on domestic demand, gradually stabilizing its enormous positive net trade position,” it said.