Call it the price of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Norway’s market share of salmon exports to China has plummeted from 92 per cent in 2010 to just 29 per cent in the first half of this year. Both the Faroe Islands and the UK have overtaken it in sales despite it enjoying a near monopoly for the previous decade.
The cause is obvious, say industry and political experts: the decision of a Norwegian committee in October 2010 to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Chinese dissident.
“It is no secret that declining sales in China are connected to the Nobel Peace Prize. This is a difficult political situation between Norway and China, and not something that can be solved by the industry,” Alf-Helge Aarskog, chief executive of Marine Harvest, one of the country’s biggest salmon farmers, told a Norwegian newspaper.
Slumping salmon market share is the clearest sign of the commercial freeze felt by Norway since the Nobel Prize award. A proposed bilateral trade agreement fell through after years of negotiations while late last year China allowed visitors from every European country apart from Norway to visit Beijing without a visa.
A number of Norwegian politicians, business people and journalists have been refused visas to visit China while Oslo’s ambassador to Beijing has been keenly practising his tennis due to the lack of meetings.
“There is no sign of a thaw. Of course, we are hopeful but things are still difficult,” a Norwegian official said earlier this year.
Norway exported 11,000 tonnes of salmon to China in 2010 while the UK sold just 510 tonnes and the Faroes none, according to data from the Norwegian Seafood Council.
But in the first six months of 2013 the UK exported 4,600 tonnes, the Faroes 4,000 and Norway 3,700.
“Short term, no one goes bankrupt right now,” said Sigmund Bjørgo, the council’s director for China, pointing to rising salmon prices that have cushioned the drop in market share.
But he added: “The most dramatic part is the long-term effect. China is expected to grow by 20 per cent annually and last year it was 40 per cent. We are in a phase of growth and producers are positioning themselves. We are losing our competitive edge.”
Mr Bjørgo refused to blame the Nobel Prize decision – awarded by a committee independent of the Norwegian government but including a former prime minister – and instead pinned the blame on strict checks imposed by China that have left fresh fish rotting in warehouses.
Norwegian officials say there are some ways around the ban with salmon first exported to countries such as Scotland or Vietnam before entering China. But Mr Bjørgo said such “rumours” could not explain all the market share loss.
Chinese consumers, mostly unaware of the government’s clash with Norway, still show an overwhelming preference for Norwegian salmon, say industry executives and Beijing residents.
Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
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