DURHAM, N.C. – China is the largest importer of seafood in the world, but a new analysis by researchers at the University of Florida, Duke University and four other institutions finds that nearly 75% of that fish never makes it to the Chinese market.

Instead, it’s processed in China and exported back into the global market as a product of China, a practice known as re-exporting.

According to the new peer-reviewed analysis, published Jan. 28 in Science, this complicates efforts to trace seafood sustainability and can make it easier for fish to be mislabeled.

“Re-exports are not necessarily a bad thing. The challenge is that they facilitate unsustainable practices, and we know China is implicated in problematic practices such as distant-water fishing and illegal, unreported fishing,” said Frank Asche, lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Florida’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems. 

A case in point, he said, is that China currently exports 35% more cod than it imports, without reporting any domestic landings of the fish. The surplus 35% is presumably made up of other, cheaper species of whitefish that are being labeled and exported as cod. Or it may come from unreported sources. Either way, it’s not alone: The study shows that of China’s 15 most imported species of seafood, cod is one of six where there is no reported domestic production.

Economic impacts associated with the sheer volume of seafood being imported, processed, and re-exported by China are being felt in small coastal fishing communities worldwide, said Martin D. Smith, George M. Woodwell Distinguished Professor of Environmental Economics at Duke University, who co-authored the study. 

Job losses caused by slowdowns or closures in local fish-processing industries are undercutting the economies of many communities and reducing the importance of fishing there. This presents a significant challenge to U.S. coastal communities, as China is the largest market for U.S. seafood exports.

“Chinese fishers do not catch any salmon, and yet I bought a package of wild-caught pink salmon filets in my local Walmart just two weeks ago with the label clearly stating ‘Product of China,’” Smith noted. 

“Fish caught in the U.S. often ends up on the shelves of grocery stores as a product of China,” said Asche.

The new study’s findings underscore the need to increase the traceability of the global seafood trade system, Smith said, noting that there are measures that can be taken to make U.S. fishing communities more competitive.

“Fisheries managers need to consider how their policies affect the competitiveness of seafood processing,” he said. “Policies that spread catches out, such as catch shares, maintain a steady flow of product. That allows processors to have better capacity utilization and compete with low-cost processing in China.”

Researchers at the University of Stavanger, American University, Johns Hopkins University and the BI Norwegian Business School co-authored the paper.

Funding came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Norwegian Research Council, and Florida Sea Grant.

CITATION: “China’s Seafood Exports: Not for Domestic Consumption?,” Frank Asche, Bixuan Yang, Jessica A. Gephart, Martin D. Smith, James L. Anderson, Edward V. Camp, Taryn M. Garlock, David C. Love, Atle Oglend, and Hans-Martin Straume; Jan. 28, 2022, Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.abl4756