India's marine food, particularly frozen shrimps, exports may be lower by 10 to 15 percent in the current financial year as the industry faces a “multiplicity of problems”, starting with a shortage of containers.
“We have had quite a few problems this year, beginning with COVID-19. Then, we had rains that affected shrimp production and now, we have problems with container availability,” said Elias Sait, Secretary-General, Seafood Exporters of India (SEI).
Exporters were facing an acute shortage of containers and it had led to a surge in the freight charge. "At least 95 percent of cultured shrimp in the country is exported,” said S Chandrasekar, Director, Grobest Feeds Corporation.
Sait said the problem was more severe in ports such as Chennai and Kochi. “It is not only the problem of container shortage. Seafood consignments are held up at the ports for 15-20 days as not too many vessels are around,” he said.
Exports to China, a major buyer, were badly affected, he said. "They buy in preparation of the new year. Usually, consignments reach retailer outlets on the 21st or 22nd day of sailing but now since Beijing is carrying out a strict testing process to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it takes anywhere between 40 and 60 days,” Chandrasekhar said.
The problem for exporters is that they will know the status of their shipments only after the Chinese customs authorities clear it.
“November-December is a key period for exports to China,” the Grobest Director said.
“Shipping has been affected by coronavirus and non-availability of refrigerated containers is a problem. We are concerned what will happen next. It is not an encouraging sign,” SEI’s Sait said.
The consignments at the ports were in cold storage, he said, adding that even if they were put in a container, getting a vessel to carry it would be the next problem.
According to Marine Products Exports Development Authority (MPEDA), frozen shrimp was the major export item in terms of volume and value last fiscal, with the US and China being the biggest importers. It made up 73.21 percent of the total marine products exports.
Frozen shrimp accounted for 50.8 percent of the 12.58 lakh tonnes of seafood exported from the country, earning Rs 34,152 crore ($4,899 million). The US imported 2.8 lakh tonnes of shrimp, while China bought 1.46 lakh tonnes.
In the frozen shrimp category, Vannamei (white legs) shrimp accounted for 5.12 lakh tonnes. The US imported 51 percent of the Vannamei exports and China 21.81 percent.
According to MPEDA, China is the largest importer of Indian seafood in terms of quantity, accounting for 25.5 percent. In dollar terms, the shipments accounted for a little over 20 percent.
SEI’s Sait said the container problem was because China was taking more and using them for dry cargo. “This has led to higher rates and the Chinese are willing to pay more,” he said.
Grobest’s Chandrasekhar said the seafood sector was initially hit by COVID-19 followed by the white spot syndrome virus (WSSV). “The WSSV was severe this year. The South-West monsoon got extended, while the North-East monsoon has already led to cyclones, leading to inundation of shrimp farms in Prakasam and Nellore districts of Andhra Pradesh,” he said.
Farmers were facing huge losses but they were now being helped by good farm prices due to a shortage of material. “Exporters are paying premium since they need to fulfill their contracts,” Chandrasekar said.
Exporters are paying Rs 230 per kg for 100 counts shrimp against the normal Rs 200-210. Usually, exporters book forward contracts between Rs 180 and Rs 200.
“Though some exporters might incur losses, they cab make it up when the situation improves. Last year, exporters had a good time,” said a shrimp seed producer.(Subramani Ra Mancombu is a journalist based in Chennai who writes on commodities and agriculture)