Sea Snails Fly 5,000 Miles to Grace Fine Dining Tables in China

Abalone is a prized ingredient in Chinese cuisine -- one of nine seafoods, including shark’s fin, sea cucumber, and cuttlefish roe, described in the "Garden of Contentment", a culinary classic by 18th century poet and gourmet Yuan Mei. Source: Imaginechina via AP Images

In shark-infested waters off the Australian island of Tasmania, Dean Lisson spends five hours a day diving for abalone.

Dodging the sharks is his first challenge. Getting the catch alive to hungry Chinese diners is the next.

Live sea snails that cost A$40 a kilogram (A$15 a pound) in Australia change hands for A$60 a kilo in Hong Kong, said Lisson. The chewy flesh is a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese cuisine. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Qantas Airways Ltd. are filling up their luggage holds carrying seafood on the 8,000 kilometer (5,000 mile) journey.

“We want to get it to the market in the best possible condition,” Lisson, 53, said by phone from Tasmania’s capital Hobart. “The live product is at the premium end: you’ve got to look after it.”

Australia sends about A$1.6 billion ($1.3 billion) of food overseas by plane each year, making it the country’s biggest airborne export after gold and medicine. The trade in abalone and rock lobster alone was valued at about A$761 million in the 12 months ended June, according to government data -- up about 31 percent from the A$581 million total three years earlier. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s seafood is exported by air.

Exports to China of the two shellfish are worth more to Australia than those of wine or dairy products, according to the Abalone Council, an industry group. They’ll benefit further from a free-trade deal signed in November that will cut China’s tariffs from as high as 15 percent to zero by 2018.

20 Tons

The agreement “will open up the market for us”, Nigel Chynoweth, Australia cargo manager at Cathay Pacific, said in a Dec. 4 phone interview, allowing the carrier to supply smaller cities in western and northeast China from its Hong Kong hub.

Cathay currently carries as much as 20 tons per flight of lobsters from Perth airport and charges four to five times more to ship seafood than it does for fruit and vegetables, he said. The export growth has been driven by growing Chinese wealth and changing consumer tastes, as well as improvements in the airborne supply chain, he said.

“The Chinese population is becoming more worldly in terms of appreciation for this product,” Chynoweth said, referring to lobster. “It’s not just in the high-end restaurants.”

Abalone is a prized ingredient in Chinese cuisine -- one of nine seafoods, including shark’s fin, sea cucumber, and cuttlefish roe, described in the “Garden of Contentment”, a culinary classic by 18th century poet and gourmet Yuan Mei.

‘Complicated Process’

The most-prized variety is still the dried abalone produced around the northern Chinese port of Dalian, according to Mark Wang, executive sous chef at Shanghai’s Fairmont Peace Hotel.

Drying produces about 200 grams per 1.5 kilograms of fresh meat, which then has to be soaked and braised in a “very complicated production process” taking as long as a week, he said in a phone interview.

The Fairmont Peace serves fresh Australian abalone marinated in soy sauce and garlic as part of a 1,000-yuan ($161) set menu. It’s “like scallop but a little bit more tough”, he said. Individual dishes featuring dried abalone cost about 800 yuan each, Wang said.

Keeping the abalone in good condition is critical to profitability, as exporters don’t get paid for any shellfish that turn up dead or spoiled.

Lavish Lifestyles

Lorraine Kossman, director of Adelaide Bay Seafoods Pty. on the Tamar River in northern Tasmania, said she had to write off a consignment of frozen abalone worth about A$24,000 after the freight forwarder left it in a luggage room rather than cold storage while waiting for a flight.

The trade is also vulnerable to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s drive to cut back the lavish lifestyles of government officials, according to Kossman.

“They’ve been told they’re not to have luxuries,” she said. “The first thing to go is abalone.”

Fresh seafood is helping airlines fill spare cargo space on flights leaving Australia, because of its dependence on imported consumer goods. The country brought in 1.4 tons by air for every ton it exported in 2014, according to government data.

Singapore Air’s flights to its domestic hub are Australia’s busiest outbound air freight route, with 54,766 tons carried in the 12 months ended June -- equivalent to about 15 percent of all airborne exports, the data show.

Recovery Time

The airline carries live lobster, fresh fish and shellfish on mostly passenger flights out of Australia, and hopes “to take advantage of more liberal trade agreements” by shipping more food to the 16 Chinese airports it serves, spokesman Nicholas Ionides said by e-mail.

Qantas carries lobsters and abalone to both Hong Kong and Singapore and operates a dedicated freighter plane between Sydney and Shanghai, a spokeswoman said by e-mail.

At Tasmanian Seafoods Pty.’s factory in Margate south of Hobart, abalone brought fresh from the beach are first put in aquarium tanks for a few days to recover from being caught, Darvin Hansen, general manager, said by phone Dec. 4. They’re then loaded into polystyrene boxes with water and ice, and sent to the airport.

‘If you’re saving time with shipping you get lower mortalities as a result,’’ Hansen said. “It’s very important to minimize the travel time. They get to the airport with just enough time to meet the plane.”

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