Will China triumph in the krill market?

By Mike Urch, SeafoodSource contributing editor
16 March, 2012

It is only a matter of time before China becomes the largest player in the South Antarctic krill fishery. So says Dimitri Sclabos, general manager of Tharos, a Chilean consultancy that has been advising on the utilization of krill in the Southern Ocean for 20 years.

Two Chinese companies, Dalian Fishing Company (DFC) and Shanghai Fisheries, sent vessels to fish for krill in the Southern Ocean in 2011, according to Sclabos.

“DFC has the backing of the Chinese government through various types of subsidies, on land and at sea which, if the market niches being targeted and the new products under development prove successful, this company will probably become the largest South Antarctic player,” said Sclabos.

It is thought that Shanghai Fisheries will also be receiving some kind of Chinese government support.

So far it is too early in the fishing season to know how much they have caught — seasons run from 1 December to 30 November of the following year — but they are aiming for 8,000 to 12,000 metric tons of various krill products such as, but not limited to, whole round frozen krill, krill meal and peeled krill meats, subject to weather and resource conditions.

China’s first Antarctic Ocean Living Resources’ Development and Utilization Project, “Rapid Separation of Antarctic Krill and Key Technology of Deep Processing” got underway in Dalian on 16 March last year.

The project started in October 2010 when the Chinese State Ministry of Science officially launched its “863 Program.”  In December 2010 a project team was put together comprising staff from nine universities and research institutions.

In terms of current catch effort, the South Antarctic krill industry remains concentrated in Norwegian hands, although companies from South Korea are still very much active in the fishery.

Other countries that were fishing for krill, such as Japan and Poland, have given up, although the Polish fishing license has been purchased by an Icelandic corporation that has not yet decided if it will participate in the 2012 season.

There is also a Chilean trawler operating on and off in the area.

Krill catches have averaged 170,000 metric tons for the last three seasons (2008/09, 2009/10 and 2010/11), although the 2011 harvest was below that of 2010.

If projects currently planned for 2013 and 2014 come to fruition, Tharos estimates that the overall catch could increase by at least 55 percent, reaching close to 300,000 to 350,000 metric tons by 2014.

In terms of the krill products being produced at sea and on land, there has been a shift from old knowns such as meats (canned and later frozen), whole frozen krill and dried meals, towards higher volumes of dried meals for use as aquaculture feeds.

There is the same, or lower, annual production of whole round frozen krill for use again as aqua feeds but also for sport bait, plus newer pelletized lipid/protein sources (for aqua feed and human-grade applications) and hydrolyzed end-products (for human and animal feed applications). There are also new developments of dried powders with these and the extracted oil both being used in human food applications.

Nonetheless, meals and whole frozen krill still dominate in terms of tonnage produced and market acceptance, while the other products are still being tested.

“This will continue for at least the next two to three seasons,” Sclabos said. “And we have, of course, krill oils. These are phospholipid-enriched oils, a source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) linked to phospholipids. Krill oil is probably the hottest ingredient today in the market and is probably the one main krill end-product that operators expect will make their operations financially successful.”

It is not known what has attracted the Chinese interest in krill, although it is, of course, the largest fisheries biomass and it still remains relatively unexploited.

“However, at Tharos, we have seen so many companies taking this [the biomass] for granted and think that krill will last forever and the market is ready to take whatever they are able to produce. But this has not been the case for the last 15-20 years,” said Sclabos.

Will the Chinese be successful where others have failed?

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Dimitri Sclabos
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