As many Asian countries ring in the Lunar New Year, pandemic restaurant shutdowns and ongoing trade tensions with China mean that Australian lobster remains off the menu in many of these export markets.
- Lunar New Year celebrations have traditionally been a lucrative time for lobster and abalone producers
- This year trade restrictions and restaurant closures have depressed markets
- An abalone rancher has had success targeting an emerging group of home chefs
Abalone, however, has not been subject to any additional tariffs, and a growing trend of cooking and eating at home has opened a much-needed new market for a West Australian producer.
The lead-up to Lunar New Year, which this year begins today, is usually one of the busiest times of the year for greenlip abalone fisherman Brad Adams.
But for the second year in a row, celebrations have been dampened by the COVID pandemic.
Greenlip abalone is a delicacy that is usually in high demand during traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.(ABC Rural: Jessica Hayes)
However, amid the social distancing, locked borders and shuttered restaurants, a new trend of at-home cooking has emerged.
“People in Asia are eating and celebrating at home more, rather than going out, enjoying the big banquets and celebrating in the streets like they would normally do,” he said.
“Our market research has found that more young people are cooking at home, so they’re YouTubing recipes and finding new ways to cook.
“They’re coming out of their high-rises, down on to the street, purchasing abalone in retail outlets and taking it home hopefully it has inspired a whole new generation of gourmet chefs.”
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Fresh chilled goods market crashes
Mr Adams said he was sending more bulk frozen product to market than ever before, rather than fresh chilled goods, which are traditionally air-freighted to international markets.
His company, Ocean Grown Abalone, based in Augusta on WA’s South Coast, recorded its biggest ever catch over the past six months, harvesting about 50 tonnes of greenlip abalone.
Mr Adams said he was “relieved” to clear all of his stock in the lead-up to Lunar New Year, but prices were down about 20 per cent.
“Until that demand from food service [restaurants] returns, we’ll continue to see that depressed pricing for seafood products,” he said.
Fewer weddings means lower demand
Tasmanian abalone exporter Alex Cuthbertson with some of his product.(ABC Rural)
Tasmanian abalone exporter Alex Cuthbertson said he had been able to get Tasmanian abalone into Shenzhen in south-east China, but the market in Shanghai was proving to be unpredictable.
He said typical big restaurant dinners during Lunar New Year were not happening and instead some people were giving abalone as gifts.
“Sales have been steady, nothing over the top for us, the Chinese Government is not having weddings at the moment until February 26,” he said.
With a lucky red shell, and thought by some to resemble a dragon, the western rock lobster is usually a Lunar New Year staple.(ABC: Chris Lewis)
What is Lunar New Year?
Here’s a look at how Lunar New Year began, and some of the ways people from Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese backgrounds celebrate in Australia.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) shows that in 201819, China was the destination for approximately 42 per cent of Australia’s $194 million of abalone exports and 94 per cent of Australia’s $752 million of rock lobster exports.
The bulk of lobster exports are from Western Australia the resource is valued by the WA Government at $5 billion and the lead-up to the Lunar New Year has traditionally been the most lucrative time on the lobster industry’s calendar.
But in November, the industry was left reeling after China changed its import inspection protocols, effectively closing down the lobster trade.
WA lobster fisherman Bruce Cockman.(ABC: Chris Lewis)
Hopes dashed for trade tension reprieve
WA fisherman Bruce Cockman had hoped demand for lobster during new year festivities might revive the trade as the lobster had been revered in China for its lucky red shell and dragon-like appearance.
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“Normally this is the biggest week leading up to Chinese [Lunar] New Year, the price hasn’t changed, there is no demand,” he said.
“We don’t get to talk to the Chinese buyers but we know [that within] the Chinese public demand is still strong, they would like them.”
The WA lobster season has been extended until June 30 with a total catch quota of 9,000 tonnes.
As of February 8, 2,732 tonnes of lobster remained uncaught, a signal that some fishermen are waiting and hoping beach prices will rise beyond their current level of $20 to $30 a kilogram.
Locked down and not buying lobster
Southern Rock Lobster Exporters Association managing director Michael Blake said despite losing its main buyer in China, domestic sales of southern lobster were still strong.
Lobster exporter Michael Blake is feeling the impact of the Chinese market closure.(ABC News)
Based in Tasmania, Mr Blake said the industry was also looking for alternative frozen markets in America, Japan and Taiwan and live markets into Hong Kong and Singapore, but COVID-19 shutdowns of restaurants and the food services trade were depressing demand.
“It’s a bit of a shock actually, we’re in a bit of a bubble in Tasmania and we’ve been very lucky with COVID, we ring up someone in Singapore and they go, ‘I’ve been locked down for six months, I’m not really thinking about buying lobsters’.
“All the seafood shows and expos that we’d normally go to, to connect with people, we can’t go to, so it’s very difficult.”