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Canadian crustaceans satisfying China’s demand for Atlantic lobster

Workers repack Canadian lobster at Chao Xing lobster shop at the Fengtai Fish Market in Beijing, on December 19, 2014

Adam Dean/The Globe and Mail

The Chinese wholesaler wanted 1,000 kilograms of live lobster from Nova Scotia – the bigger the better – and he wanted it in Beijing in less than a week.

Two hours of negotiations – back and forth by e-mail over price and size – and the wholesaler, Mr. Huang, had sealed the deal with a small lobster company on the province's eastern shore that specializes in exporting the live crustaceans.

That was a Friday morning. By the next Thursday, 76 cases of live lobster, worth nearly $25,000, arrived from Tangier Lobster company via refrigerated truck and an Air Canada flight, and 1,200 lobsters were crawling over one another in huge tanks at Jingshen Seafood Market, China's largest.

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"'Travel agents for lobsters' – is what we like to claim," jokes Stewart Lamont, managing director of Tangier, the 18-person company established in 2010.

China is becoming a preferred destination for Canadian crustaceans as demand skyrockets. Last year, Canada exported $36.5-million worth of live lobster to China. In 2012, exports were $35-million, an increase of $12-million from 2011.

As of October, exports were already at nearly $57-million – and the busy season is just beginning, leading up to Chinese New Year in February. Although exports to the United States – $320-million last year – remain the highest, the demand from China, and indeed throughout Asia, has been increasing steadily since 2009, when $2.7-million of live lobster was exported.

Demand for lobster has seasonal increases, and December is one of them, Mr. Lamont explains. "Do not think of it as Christmas per se, think of it as a high season for shellfish consumption."

Since last month, a Korea Air Cargo Boeing 777 has been stopping in Halifax every Sunday for five weeks to ship lobster. On Dec. 21, the plane – which will hold 103.9 tonnes – shipped 100 tonnes of lobster.

The plane flies to Seoul, also an important market, and then some of the lobster is shipped to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

Fishermen say the demand from Asia is not translating into a higher take at the wharf – prices are close to what they were at this time last year, $11.55 a kg.

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"We're kind of perplexed," says Bernard Berry, a veteran fisherman and head of the Cold Water Lobster Association, a new organization on Nova Scotia's south shore, where there are 980 licence holders. He said that "normally" with a lower Canadian dollar, the catches being down slightly from last year, and stronger and larger markets such as in China, the shore price would be higher.

This is the reason, he says, for getting organized. "Really, an individual fisherman or a handful of fishermen here and there really doesn't have the … oomph to make any change on any level," he says. "Right now we are just being told … this is the way it is."

Lobster is considered a "status symbol" among the growing middle class in China, explains Geoff Irvine, head of the Lobster Council of Canada.

"There is a big movement from the Chinese consumers to buy imported seafood because it's safe," he says. "Their waters are so polluted they don't trust their own fish."

The Chinese like the larger lobsters, which Tangier's Mr. Lamont says are the "cream of the crop" – but his company needs to spread them around. So, Mr. Huang and Tangier settled on a mix: about 227 kilograms of "small chix" – (a 0.45 kilogram lobster that the Americans nicknamed "chicken" about 100 years ago) – and nearly 909 kilograms of the select size.

These are the lobsters that Chen Youxin, who supplies eight restaurants in Beijing, finds at the Jingshen Seafood Market.

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Waving his arms to pantomime flailing claws, he says he is looking for lobsters "that are full of life." Customers want "fresh meat. It tastes good and is more nutritious," Mr. Chen says.

Shortly after 6 a.m., he steps into Chao Xing, a 24-hour outlet where tanks rustle with 2.5 tonnes of crustaceans that a few days ago were on the ocean floor off Nova Scotia. He quickly picks out 70 lobsters. His bill today: nearly $2,000.

The logistics of lobster are not particularly kind. Air freight is expensive and water is heavy, so the crustaceans are shipped dry. By the time they cross the Pacific, clear customs and land in a warehouse, many are dead.

Zhou Xin, the shopkeeper at the Chao Xing store, says in the recent shipment from Canada, more than a fifth died. They are still sold – often to buffet restaurants – but at a steep discount. It takes five dead lobsters to equal the profit of a single live one, he says.

Mr. Lamont had predicted a 1-per-cent mortality rate, given the way the lobsters were packed; the speed of the shipment and overall quality. He has received no complaints from the wholesaler.

Lu Wentao, known as "Lobster Luke," owns Beijing's original Lobster House restaurant, which he opened in 2009.

He now has two locations that together serve some 300 kilograms of lobster a day. One of his chief accomplishments was persuading people to eat a critter once used as a centrepiece display of wealth when entertaining.

He accomplished that partly through a breathtaking variety of options. His menu has 60 main course choices, including crispy with pear, sizzling with lemongrass, crispy with egg yolk, hot pot with basil – not to mention lobster à la Hong Kong, French, Mexican and Sichuan – the latter being a spicy tribute to a region of China known for tongue-searing food.

All of Mr. Lu's lobster is Canadian, and though it is not cheap – $163 a kilogram this week – he says it is winning converts among wealthier Chinese, for whom it is a bit of culinary exploration. "There are all kinds of flavours, so people come. Once they try it, they love it and tell their friends," he said.

That is exactly the message exporters and fishermen here are hoping gets out in China. The Lobster Council's Mr. Irvine says a lot of Canadian lobster is re-exported from the United States to China and other Asian countries. It is referred to as "Boston lobster" or "Maine lobster."

Mr. Irvine's council is focusing on a new Canadian brand for lobster – trying to differentiate it from U.S. lobster.

Says Mr. Berry: "It's a shame we can't make sure that our lobster, just to start with, whether it be in China [or] Europe is known as Canadian lobster."

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About the Authors
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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