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SA lobsters on ice in China trade dispute

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South Australian lobsters are among those that have been stranded on the tarmac in China, sparking concerns the lucrative shellfish could be the next target of Chinese trade sanctions.

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Trade Minister Simon Birmingham confirmed reports this morning that tonnes of live rock lobsters had been left on the tarmac at a Chinese airport due to customs clearance delays.

Further shipments of Australian lobsters to China have been halted until the issue is resolved.

SA-based Ferguson Australia is a major industry player, processing and marketing about 450 tonnes of Southern Rock Lobster a year.

China buys the majority of its catch while small amounts are shipped to markets such as Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.

Ferguson Australia managing director Andrew Ferguson confirmed his company was impacted but would not comment further.

The Southern Rock Lobster is among the most sought after lobster in the world and is only found in the waters of southern Australia and New Zealand.

Of the 3000 metric tonnes Australia processes commercially each year, about 53 per cent is caught in South Australia, 37 per cent in Tasmania and 10 per cent in Victoria.

Large volumes of Western Rock Lobster are also exported to China out of WA.

The Seafood Trade Advisory Group, representing both industries, has formed a working group to collaborate with authorities to resolve the issue quickly.

In a statement released this morning the group said some Australian lobster shipments had experienced customs clearance delays in recent days due to an increased level of import inspections in China.

“Whilst some cargo has been cleared, there are continued risks of delays while new processes are being implemented,” the statement said.

“The information we have at this time suggests that these new tests are related to new health and compliance checks.

“To mitigate this risk a decision has been made by the majority of exporters to stop sending shipments to China until more is known about the new process.”

Live Australian lobsters are typically cooled to 6 or 7C where they go into a dormant state and are packed into chill boxes and airfreighted to China overnight.

The lobsters can survive for about 30 hours out of water but are usually back in a live tank in China about 20 hours after leaving the water in Australia.

“The industry is working closely with Chinese importers and the relevant government authorities to understand what the new requirements are and how best to comply with them,” the STAG statement said.

“The aim is to minimise disruptions while ensuring our Chinese customers get access to safe quality premium lobsters from Australia.

“We’re confident that Australian rock lobster industry’s reputation as a global leader in quality, reliability and sustainability will meet the standards of the new process.”

Commercial Southern Rock Lobster fisheries contribute around $250 million in landed seafood value to the Australian economy each year, mostly from Chinese sales.

The setback comes at the beginning of SA’s Southern Rock Lobster season, which runs from October 1 until May 31.

Birmingham said the Federal Government was working with exporters to understand the situation that had stalled a number of shipments.

He told ABC radio this morning the Australian industry had decided to suspend exports to China until it had a better understanding of the new import screening processes to make sure future shipments could be cleared in a timely way.

“Some cargos have cleared, so this hasn’t been a full blockage or stoppage but certainly there have been sufficient delays in the industry, given the high value and short shelf life of these sorts of products,” Birmingham said.

Chinese customs officials are believed to be testing the lobsters for trace elements of minerals and metals.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the shellfish were screened before shipping, so there was no need for the inspections.

“Australia has been singled out on this, there has been no other nation that is exporting rock lobster into China that has been asked to do this,” he said.

Littleproud warned the issue could take some time to resolve.

“We have serious concerns about this and we’ll ask serious questions of Chinese officials,” he told the ABC.

“We’ve become aware of this in the last couple of days in my department and our officials in Beijing have been working to get clarification.”

China has launched trade strikes against Australian beef, barley and wine in recent months.

Australian cotton and coal also appear to have been dragged into the trade dispute.

Littleproud has attempted to discuss the ongoing trade issues with his Chinese counterpart, but his telephone calls have not been returned.

 – with AAP

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