Over the past couple of decades, China has eclipsed one country after another to become the leading U.S. supplier for this and that. Think of clothing — and closets filled with apparel bearing the “Made in China” label. Think of TVs, computers and cellphones — and homes, offices, purses and pockets filled with them.
You can also think of fish fillets.
Over the last two decades, fish fillet imports into the United States have shifted from being led by a North American nation (Canada, 1994-1999) to a South American one (Chile, 2000-2004) to an Asian one (China, 2005-present).
But while it rarely, if ever, happens the other way, Chile is making a run at China, though it is different types of fish, different modes of transportation, different temperature treatment and different entry points. And it’s a South Florida story.
This year, China is accounting for 27.75 percent of all fish fillet imports into the United States, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. But that is its lowest percentage in a decade. Chile, meanwhile, is at 24.44 percent, according to the Census Bureau data through June. In fact, last year at this time, the value of fish fillet imports from Chile was greater than that for China, though they swapped places by year’s end.
The South Florida Customs district has long led the nation in these imports, and still does. Today, those imports, led by chilled salmon and overwhelmingly from Chile, fly into Miami International Airport, the nation’s leading port of entry. The imports from China, generally frozen tilapia, sail into the Port of Los Angeles.
Fish fillets are the seventh-most valuable import into South Florida through the first six months of 2015. This column is part of a continuing series on South Florida’s most valuable imports, with previous columns covering gold, refined petroleum, aircraft and cellphones.
But the question is less whether Chile can overtake China and more whether the South Florida Customs district can benefit from the expansion of the Panama Canal and the deepening of the PortMiami channel to accommodate the large Asian ships laden with frozen fish and other goods.
One thing is for sure: Americans’ appetite for fish is almost as rapacious as is its appetite for cellphones and other tech goodies. One of the primary draws of fish is that it is seen as a healthier source of protein than beef, pork or chicken. That appetite is not the exclusive province of Americans, however.
One benefit of the rise of globalization over the last several decades is a that larger percentage of the world’s population can afford and is interested in having protein as part of their diet, whether daily, weekly, or even only now and again.
That has been a factor in another change: the rapid growth of fish farming. While well-intentioned people can disagree on whether fish-farming is good or bad, a majority of the fish eaten worldwide is now farmed. There is simply not enough fish in the wild to meet the world’s appetite.
U.S. rank: Although fish fillets — the category includes fresh, chilled or frozen fillets — rank No. 7 in South Florida, they are the nation’s No. 80-ranked import this year. Last year at this time, fish fillets ranked No. 73 nationally. Ranking ahead of fish fillets are shrimp and other crustaceans, at No. 72, down 14 positions from just one year ago.
The United States imports little chicken or pork, particularly relative to what we produce for our consumption and what we export. But beef imports are having a banner year. Frozen beef imports have risen 50 positions since last year to rank No. 104 among all U.S. imports, almost doubling in value in just three years. Fresh beef imports have risen 52 positions this year to rank No. 130.
Individually, the two beef categories are worth less than fish fillet imports, but combined they are worth more: $3.52 billion compared with $2.67 billion for fish fillets. Imports of shrimp and other crustaceans were valued at $3.04 billion through the first six months of the year.
South Florida trade: The good news is that even though fish fillet imports into South Florida are down 6.10 percent this year to $712.10 million through the first six months of 2015, the growth trajectory over the last decade has been strong.
Since 2005, total South Florida imports have risen 58.71 percent while fish fillets have increased 153.56 percent. The 2015 total is the second-highest on record, second only to the 2014 total.
Where it originates: This year, 59.45 percent of the fish fillets entering South Florida are coming from Chile, lower than the record 67.94 percent from the same period of 2014 but well within the normal range of the last decade. China accounted for 4.21 percent, the fourth-largest source, a slightly lower percentage than the average for the last five years.
However, that percentage could rise in coming years if the bigger Asian ships bring those tilapia and other fish fillets here.
Importance to South Florida: Fish fillets accounted for 2.95 percent of all South Florida imports through June, a fairly large percentage considering that there are more than 1,265 import categories. That is also the third-highest percentage in the last decade.
South Florida competition: The percentage of the fish fillet import market held by South Florida and Los Angeles has remained largely unchanged over the last decade. South Florida is accounting for 26.69 percent so far this year, with a range over the course of the last decade from 27.95 percent at this time last year to a low of 21.66 percent in 2010. Los Angeles is accounting for 17.04 percent. Its range is from a high of 19.60 percent in the first six months of 2004 to a low of 15.36 in 2006. The two have combined for more than 40 percent of the total all but two years in the last 12.
Coming next: T-shirts, another import where South Florida leads the nation — and is getting competition from China and Los Angeles.
Reach Ken Roberts, president of World City, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tradenumbers.
South Florida fish fillet imports fall 6.10 percent
Total fish fillet imports
June 2015 YTD s
Chge. in rank
June 2015 YTD
New York City
Source: WorldCity analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data