Norway’s market share of salmon exports to China dropped from 92 percent in 2012 to just 29 percent in the first half of 2013, ending the country’s near-monopoly in the Chinese salmon market in the previous decade. The reason for the plunge is widely believed to be the decision of a Norwegian committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in October 2010.
“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 the Financial Times Thursday.
The reversal in salmon exports is astonishing – in 2010, Norway exported 11,000 metric tons (12,125 tons) of salmon to China, while the U.K. sold 510 metric tons and the Faroes Islands none, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council. But in the first half of this year, the U.K. exported 4,600 metric tons, the Faroes 4,000 metric tons and Norway just 3,700 metric tons.
The salmon saga is just the most prominent sign of the commercial freeze China imposed on the Scandinavian country following the 2010 Nobel Prize. A proposed bilateral trade agreement fell through after years of negotiation, and Norway is now the only European country whose citizens may not visit Beijing without a visa.
Even Norwegians who have solid reasons to be in China – businessmen, politicians and journalists – are at times refused visas, while the Norwegian ambassador to Beijing has had plenty of time to play tennis due to a 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, according to the Financial Times.
In the short term, rising salmon prices have compensated for the sharp fall in exports to China, according to Sigmund Bjørgo, the director of Norwegian Seafood Council for China, but the long-term ramifications are distressing.
“The most dramatic part is the long-term effect. China is expected to grow by 20 percent annually and last year it was 40 percent,” added Bjørgo. “We are in a phase of growth and producers are positioning themselves. We are losing our competitive edge.”
Unlike other industry experts, Bjørgo refused to blame the Nobel Prize decision, which was awarded by a committee that is independent of the government but included a former prime minister. He believed the blame lies with the strict checks imposed by China that have left fresh fish rotting in warehouses.
Chinese consumers, largely unaware of the government’s clash with Norway, still prefer Norwegian salmon, industry executives and Beijing residents tell the Financial Times.