China already consumes a quarter of the world's seafood and with Chinese imports of fish and shellfish expected to triple over the next eight years, NZX-listed fishing operator Sanford is focused on feeding the growing demand in the Asian superpower.
Chief executive Eric Barratt, who was in the Chinese city of Dalian this week for the China Fisheries and Seafood Expo, says the Auckland-based company's sales to China are likely to increase from 8.5 per cent of total exports to between 20 and 25 per cent by 2020.
"We think China is a huge opportunity - that's why we're prepared to put a lot of effort into it," Barratt said.
A new report by Rabobank, titled The Dragon's Changing Appetite, says rising incomes in the world's second largest economy are driving increased demand for premium seafood, both domestically sourced and imported.
While farmed fresh water species such as carp account for 45 per cent of fish consumption in China, the rising wealth of the country is driving a shift in taste towards more premium sea fish, presenting a lucrative opportunity for seafood exporters around the world, the report said.
Rabobank industry analyst Gorjan Nikolik said Chinese seafood imports, which hit US$7.5 billion ($9.1 billion) in 2011, were growing at 14 per cent per annum and were expected to reach US$20 billion by 2020.
Growing Chinese demand would lead to global price increases for most premium seafood species, the report said.
Barratt said that while almost 90 per cent of Sanford's scampi exports went to Japan two years ago, 50 per cent of its exports of the small, lobster-like crustaceans now went to China.
"There's a great variety of people with different income streams and scampi is really appealing to a section of the market that is prepared to pay the price."
Through its Chinese distribution partner Oravida, Sanford supplies 200 restaurants in Shanghai with scampi.
Barratt said Sanford wanted to take advantage of the fact that imported seafood had become a "status" product in China.
"At the traditional Chinese banquet meals - 10 or 12 people sitting around a table - the host will make a point of pointing out that a dish is made from imported seafood," he said.
Barratt said New Zealand greenshell mussels were another important part of Sanford's Chinese export strategy.
The company exports the shellfish to China under the Pure New Zealand Greenshell Mussel brand, a joint venture between Sanford, Sealord, Kono NZ and Greenshell New Zealand.
"We're trying to take what is a relatively cheap protein product [greenshell mussels] and get real, wide distribution through middle level restaurants that find they can put them into a dish at a really economical price."
There were also many opportunities around exporting squid, salmon, barracuda, hoki, live rock lobster, snapper, tarakihi and john dory to China, Barratt said, adding that introducing new species to Chinese buyers was one of the main reasons for Sanford's attendance at the seafood expo in Dalian, where a number of New Zealand seafood firms united under the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise banner.
He said China's growing demand for imported seafood could be supplied sustainably, as most fish stocks around the world were now well managed, apart from some notable exceptions, such as West Africa.
"Remember we're not catching any more fish to meet this market demand - what we're seeing is a shift in markets," said Barratt.
Sanford has been criticised for its continued toothfish fishing in Antarctica's Ross Sea, which Greenpeace says is an unsustainable.
Shares in Sanford, which have gained around 14 per cent since the start of August, closed down 10c at $4.35 last night.