Against the backdrop of trade sanctions on Australian lobsters, smugglers have been caught trying to take nearly 2,000 kilograms of live lobster and sea cucumber into China.

Key points:

  • The seized animals had a total value of $1.75 million 
  • An increasing number of Australian lobster fishers are sending sanctioned goods to China via Hong Kong
  • Before the ban, China had accounted for over 90 per cent of Australia’s lobster exports

Hong Kong Customs officials said they seized 890 kilograms of live lobsters and 930 kilograms of sea cucumbers, with a total estimated value of 10 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.75 million).

Two men aged 40 and 45 suspected to be connected to the case were also arrested, the statement added.

Lui Siu-fai, the divisional commander of the city’s Syndicate Crimes Investigation Bureau, said the origin of the smuggled goods was still under investigation and the boxes were not labelled with a country of origin.

A suspected smuggler is escorted by officers from the Hong Kong Customs

Hong Kong Customs says smuggling poses a threat to national security.(AP: Kin Cheung)

The seized contraband was found aboard a double-engined speedboat trying to leave a harbour on the south of Hong Kong Island under the cover of darkness, he said.

“I believe that most of the smuggled goods were [to be] shipped to mainland China,” he said.

Blocking lobsters part of ‘national security’ drive

Lobsters are considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and China had previously accounted for over 90 per cent of Australia’s lobster exports.

But that changed in 2020, when diplomatic tensions saw Beijing impose a series of unofficial trade hurdles on Australian produce.

Exports of lobsters to Hong Kong then soared — Hong Kong and Australia have a separate free trade deal — with some of the live seafood finding its way to mainland cities.

This is known as “grey trading” — that is, when fishers export the sanctioned goods first to a third country to circumvent a ban.

The practice, which is not illegal, allows the goods to then be repackaged and delivered to the intended country. 

Red lobsters are seen close up underwater

Australia is challenging China’s trade measures at the World Trade Organization.(AP: Kin Cheung)

The latest Customs seizure came weeks after a similar anti-smuggling operation in October saw authorities seize 5,300 kilograms of Australian lobster and arrest 13 people suspected to be connected to the case.

Hong Kong Customs head Louise Ho cited the crackdown on alleged smuggling of Australian lobsters to the Chinese mainland as part of a mission to safeguard national security.

“On the face of it, it’s just a normal smuggling case, smuggling lobsters. But actually, these smuggling activities would undermine the country’s trade restrictions on Australia,” she said.

“Therefore, tackling lobster-smuggling activities is an important task in safeguarding national security.”

China’s lobster ban came after the Australian government pushed for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

China has since blocked other Australian imports including wine, barley, cotton and coal.

Beijing’s trade practices are being reviewed by the World Trade Organization, with Australia arguing they are inconsistent with WTO rules.

Australia’s ambassador to the WTO said last month that China had “implemented trade disruptive measures” which had ended Australia’s exports of a dozen commodities, including lobster.

Australia lobster exports to China, previously worth more than $720 million a year, had been “significantly impacted following the General Administration of Customs China notification on 5 November 2020 they would be subjected to enhanced inspection”, a spokesperson for Australia’s Trade Minister Dan Tehan said.

Australians are expected to be able to purchase half-price lobsters this Christmas, with Victorian lobsters expected to cost $70 per kilo compared to the usual $140, due to the Chinese market being closed to exports.

ABC/wires

China banned Australian lobsters, but a smuggling operation worth $1.75m tried another way
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