A Chinese customs notice released on Friday, the same day the lobsters were held up, shows officials detected a bark beetle – the eastern five-spined engraver – in Queensland logs heading to Chinese customers. Timber industry sources in Australia and China confirmed they had faced hurdles getting their product into China. The beetle, which can kill local trees, was also allegedly found in barley exports from Emerald Grain Australia.
“Customs suspends the acceptance of Australian Queensland logs and Emerald Grain Australia barley declarations for shipments after October 31, 2020,” the notice states.
Timber importer Wu Jun, from Shanghai Guangyou Wood in Taichang, said exporters would be liable for fumigating the timber to exterminate the pests.
“If insects are discovered in multiple batches imported timbers in ports in different cities, such a [customs] warning will be issued,” he said.
Australian exporters to China, who asked not to be identified, said they were concerned a combination of political tensions and the Chinese government’s push to prop up the local industry may be behind the customs notice.
The Australian government has raised protests with their counterparts in China about other exports being targeted by authorities without justification.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud on Monday said the government had serious concerns about the lobsters being targeted for enhanced customs clearance measures because authorities said they needed to test them for metal content levels.
“They are effectively saying that they wish to test up to 50 per cent of rock lobsters that come in for heavy metals,” he said. “Now, we contest quite clearly that there is already arrangements within Australia to do tests to make sure the product we send is of the highest class in the world.”
The government is concerned that any further delay would send a signal to Australian lobster fisherman to stop fishing. Australia’s industry is heavily dependent on China with more than 94 per cent of Australia’s $752 million rock lobster exports heading there in 2018-19.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Monday that Chinese authorities and Australian industry had used “a good degree of cooperation” while attempting to resolve the lobster impasse. But he urged Australian exporters to diversify their trading networks to minimise their market risk.
“In a broader sense, there have been a number of disruptions to Australia trade with China this year,” he said. “They have been well recorded and well documented and the risk factor appears to have changed as a result of some of the unpredictable administrative decisions that have been made at the Chinese end.”
At the Beijing Jingshen Seafood Market on Monday a seafood shop owner said Australian lobsters were not selling well at the moment despite their superior quality. He said the price had surged by 40 per cent in the last two months on the back of transportation difficulties.
“We never heard of Boston lobsters or king crabs from Canada being subjected to such delay,” said the store owner, who asked not to be identified because trade tensions are politically sensitive.
“Although none of ours being hold up, we still are reluctant to import Australian lobsters now. China-Australia relations are not good in recent years. It makes sense that Chinese customs strictly follow the quarantine inspection procedures for goods from an unfriendly country while taking a loosened and speedy approach to the friendly ones.”
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.