Global fish prices have leapt to all-time highs as China's growing appetite for high-end species – from tuna to oysters – runs up against lower catches.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's global fish price index, an industry benchmark that tracks the cost of wild and farmed seafood, hit a record high in May, up 15 per cent from a year ago and above the peak set in mid 2011.
"In the coming months, supply constraints for several important species are likely to keep world fish prices on the rise," the Rome-based FAO has warned.
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Changes in the Chinese diet have already boosted demand for grains and livestock feed, but the index suggests that the same phenomenon is under way in the seafood industry, where the total value of fish trade is expected to reach $130bn this year.
China is the world's largest producer of farmed tilapia – the mainly freshwater white fish – but it is increasing its imports of other types such as salmon and shellfish.
Oyster and mussel consumption is growing at 20 per cent a year in the country, according to the FAO, making China a leading market for more expensive shellfish and tightening supply elsewhere.
Oyster prices, which have more than doubled over the past three years, are expected to rise further in 2013, as supplies from France remain low due to a virus that has destroyed the country's young stock.
Richard Haward, a seventh generation oysterman in Essex, northeast of London, said: "Demand from Hong Kong and China and a worldwide shortage of supplies have increased prices."
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Urbanisation and the advent of supermarkets are contributing to higher fish consumption in emerging markets generally, the FAO has found.
Audun Lem, a fish expert at the FAO, said: "The product development, including ready meals and clean fillets really facilitates fish consumption."
Rising Asian demand has coincided with low supplies for several key species because of disease and high feeding costs in the aquaculture industry.
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The cost of tuna – one of the most heavily traded fish species – has risen 12 per cent in the past year, to reach a record high, on strong demand from makers of sashimi and sushi, as well as from the canned tuna industry. This has coincided with smaller catches.
Shrimp, another heavily traded species, has risen in price by 22 per cent over the same period as supplies have been hit by disease in southeast Asia, as well as by a fall in wild harvests.
Salmon prices, meanwhile, have surged 27 per cent – but remain well below their record highs.
Farmed fish production costs remain high as the industry battles with record feed costs. Fishmeal prices remain near a record high because of a sharp decline in supplies of anchovies, used to manufacture feed rations.