As Chinese health authorities tighten controls on seafood trade in the face of the coronavirus, the impact on exports to China remain unclear -- but already Norwegian salmon producers are feeling the pinch.

Ole Bernt Solheim, head of marketing and sales at salmon supplier Norwell, told IntraFish his company is already seeing a slowdown.

"We don't have any cancelled orders, but we have a lack of orders. According to my clients, restaurants are closing or running on very low staff," he said.

"They don't have any customers so they don't take in expensive Norwegian salmon."

Norwegian salmon shipped to China is often fresh and in larger sizes, within the 5 kilogram and above category, for which there are only few other markets, such as Korea or Vietnam.

Solheim expects that prices, particularly for larger fish, will be impacted this week.

"You have the European market, but they aren't willing to pay the same prices, which is why I think it will have an impact on the pricing during the week," he said.

According to Solheim, it will continue as long as the limitations set by the Chinese government are in place.

Another exporter claimed the impact on orders began two weeks ago, as some of the company's airborne shipments started being cancelled or delayed by Chinese customers, the company's sales manager told IntraFish.

"Many are hesitant about taking new shipments into China," the executive said.

Although it has yet to affect the company in "big volumes," the executive said they were hearing similar comments from other exporters.

"It is difficult to say when it will end, but we are keeping regular dialogue with local representatives and media."

The exporter has long been selling to the Chinese market, the sales manager said, giving it an advantage of having regular customers compared to other exporters who have just started building relationships.

Salmon exports' growth in 2018

For Norway, salmon trade would be the first to show signs of impact, as most whitefish enters China frozen for reprocessing and then re-export, Norwegian Seafood Council Seafood Analyst Ingrid Kristine Pettersen told IntraFish.

Last year, Norwegian whole salmon exports to China nearly doubled, hitting 23,293 metric tons, signifying one of the fastest-growing markets for salmon for Norway.

In November 2019, IntraFish reported a long-awaited update to the list of Norwegian seafood producers approved for the Chinese market had been published, bringing the grand total to 345.

Exports to China exploded last year mainly due to trade policies lightening up on what has been a historically difficult trading relationship, Pettersen added.

For Faroese salmon farmer Bakkafrost, China is an important market, with sales to Asia (mainly China) accounting for 27 percent of their sales of whole fresh salmon in 2018, up from 23 percent in 2017.

"We have been selling to China for many years, and we don't have any plans to stop," Bakkafrost CEO Regin Jacobsen told IntraFish.

"At the moment it’s very difficult to give too many details comments as we are in a silent period. If we have something to say, we will come out to the market through our normal channels."

However, development in the Chinese market has remained slow for the majority of Norwegian salmon farmers, with trade policies still being cited a a major contributor to the slow growth. In its 2018 annual report, SalMar cites the 2015 ban on the importation of Norwegian salmon from selected regions, with a revocation being issued much later in July 2018.

"China still accounts for a small proportion of the market for Norwegian salmon," it had written.