Dubai in the market for New England shellfish

With Europe and China effectively off-limits because of trade tariffs, the New England lobster industry and other components of the region’s shellfish industry are on the prowl for new markets.

How does the emirate of Dubai sound?

In September, the nonprofit Food Export – Northeast, in collaboration with the foreign agricultural service office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organized a three-day trade mission to Dubai to allow Northeast American lobster and oyster suppliers to meet with Persian Gulf seafood buyers.

“The bottom line, obviously, is we’re trying to diversify markets,” said Tim Hamilton, executive director of Food Export – Northeast. “The industry has relied so much on first Europe and now China. Both of those have met with challenges recently. We haven’t done that much with seafood in that part of the world and we thought we’d take a group there and learn more about the market and generate some interest among the industry there.”

Hamilton said Dubai — one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates — and the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) represent a potentially lucrative integrated new market for American lobsters, oysters and other shellfish.

“The Middle East has money and they don’t produce food,” Hamilton said. “So there’s an understanding and a predisposition for eating foods from elsewhere.”

The GCC countries, he said, offer several attractive qualities as consumer export markets. They have deep veins of wealth, strong population growth and escalating standards of living. Dubai, with a population of about 2.3 million, is the most populous city in the UAE.

It boasts the world’s tallest building — the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa — and one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It has a history as one of the leading trade hubs in the Gulf region for re-exporting food products to neighboring countries. Overall, its largest trading partner is China.

U.S seafood exports to the six GCC countries totaled $14.4 million in 2018, while total U.S. food and agricultural exports reached about $3.3 billion. Clearly, there is room for growth.

“We learned there is a huge amount of tourism in Dubai, a lot of premium tourism, and a lot of interest in the (seafood) market,” Hamilton said. “We sold $800,000 on the spot. And they estimate the future sales would be about $1.8 million a year just from the relationships we developed there.”

The members of the trade mission included Maine lobstermen and processors, as well as New England oyster suppliers.

They visited four supermarkets that carry live and fresh seafood, as well as touring the Dubai Seafood Market. They also met with seafood buyers from several GCC countries.

“Having feet on the ground and eyes in the market provide suppliers the chance to get a more accurate picture of the market opportunities and its constraints,” said Colleen Coyne, the seafood program coordinator for Food Export – Northeast and the leader of the mission to Dubai. “Meeting and talking with buyers on their own turf also allows suppliers to develop stronger business relationships, which ultimately leads to better long-term business opportunities.”

Also in the fall, Food Export – Northeast held a similar trade mission to Spain that spotlighted American lobster, scallops, monkfish, squid — and a newcomer on the block — Jonah crab.

The ability to create foreign markets for Jonah crab could be a huge boon for Massachusetts lobstermen and other New England fishermen who are working in the burgeoning fishery. Next month, NOAA Fisheries will implement new regulations that will define the Jonah crab fishery in federal waters by establishing permitting requirements and size and possession limits for the first time.

Once considered mere bycatch in the lobster industry, Jonah crab commercial landings have skyrocketed 650% since the early 2000s, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission, which regulates the species at the interstate level.

In 2018, Northeast fishermen landed 20.2 million pounds of Jonah crab worth more than $18 million off the boat.

In Massachusetts, which accounts for 70% of all Jonah crab landings, fishermen landed 11.68 million pounds of Jonah crab in 2017, with a value of $11.28 million. It is the state’s fifth most lucrative fishery, ahead of such staples as haddock and soft-shell clams.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.