Rainforest to export live J'can lobsters to Asia

BY KARENA BENNETT Business reporter bennettk@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, January 31, 2015

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RAINFOREST Seafoods will begin exporting live Jamaican lobsters to Asian markets by July. Markets are to include China, Japan and South Korea.


The company, which has been incrementally expanding its product line over the years, is now in the process of constructing a $100-million lobster facility at its plant in Montego Bay to accommodate the 250,000 pounds of lobster it plans to export this year.


What's more, the new venture will see an additional 20 people employed to manage plant operations and should create a large stimulus for the fishing communities on the south coast.


"There are opportunities out there," chief executive officer of Rainforest Seafoods, Brian Jardim told the Jamaica Observer in an interview on Thursday. "The word Jamaica, and of course something premium like a lobster from Jamaica, is a big deal. You can't have a wedding or any celebration in China and not serve Caribbean lobster."


China, one of the world's largest importers and consumers of seafood dishes, has substantially increased its demand for live lobsters since about 2009. Prior to that there was minimal interest by the Chinese in live lobster imports. The combined dollar value of all US lobster sold to China totalled just US$74,651 in 2008. However, by 2010 live lobster demand had grown by 400 per cent to US$1.3 million and then to approximately US$3 million in 2011, according to Global Trade Atlas.


Rainforest's plan to push its export earnings to 50 per cent of revenue by 2016 is now a step closer. Live lobsters will be shipped to the company's Montego Bay plant and will be placed in water with a temperature of roughly 60 degrees - down from the usual 80 degrees - to slow down their heart rate, ultimately putting the lobsters to sleep.


"We will then ship them in styrofoam containers with a very special kind of wood that is shredded. This will help to make them feel cosy so that they don't wake up during the 36-hour travel to get to markets like Japan, China and Korea," Jardim told Sunday Finance.


Live lobster imported into the Asian market is sold to wholesale seafood markets, and then re-sold to high-end Chinese restaurants that demand premium, fresh seafood. Producers such as Florida, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Bahamas currently export the same species of lobster as Jamaica. But Jardim is optimistic that his company will have an edge over other suppliers as the market perceives Jamaican lobster to be a more exotic delicacy.


Rainforest currently produces the highest quantity of lobster tail to popular American seafood restaurant, Red Lobster. The company is now working with the Fisheries Department and Vet Services as well as trainers from Florida who will assist with the shipping and handling techniques of the sea creature.


"When you sell a tail you lose two-thirds of the lobster. But when you strip it whole you get the full use of the biomass, it's all exportable, all foreign exchange, and when you go live you're getting the very best pricing of all," the CEO said. He added that the lobsters will be sold to large brokers in China who will handle the clearing fees and even provide an extra two per cent for the mortality of the lobster.


Jardim stated that the seasonality of the product makes it a little difficult to predict the prices that the lobsters will be sold for as well. Price is also dependent on Brazil's lobster production.


"Cuba produces a lot of lobster, but up until now we haven't got access to their production numbers. Nobody really knows. So they will send a lot of their products to China because of their ties with Russia and China," Jardim said.


"So that's kind of the wild card, but again we feel that the brand Jamaica aspect of it is going to carry us a good step," he added.


Rainforest currently exports a number of its products to several markets in the Caribbean including the Cayman Islands, Martinique and Barbados, and the company continues to do well with its lobster tail export in the United States.


Jardim hopes to benefit from the efficiencies provided with the close proximity of its Montego Bay plant to the Sangster International Airport and plans on tapping into other seafood opportunities such as crabs and sea cucumbers, which he said are also big in the Asian markets.


"It's all about the quality. We are very careful who we buy from, and we also catch with our own boats. We don't touch buried lobsters or under-sized lobsters. In fact, we have a policy as a seafood company that healthy oceans are healthy profits and if we can keep those oceans healthy, it really means the next season gets better," he said.


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