Seafood is a big revenue earner for airlines and container lines, leading to such innovations as the design of specialist boxes to carry live lobsters, and it’s set to get a whole lot bigger.

“Fish and fishery products are among the world’s most traded food commodities, and trade in the fisheries and aquaculture sector operates in an increasingly globalised environment,” said the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) within the United Nations in a briefing paper last November.

The trade in fish and fishery products topped US$143 billion in 2016 with a three-year average of around US$141 billion, the FAO said, citing its own figures.

“Projections up to 2026 show (the) fish trade will continue to expand,” said the FAO without giving details.

Outlining the importance of the sector to container lines and air cargo operators, the FAO said about 36% of total fish production by live weight is exported mostly from developing countries.

“In 2016, exports by developing countries were valued at US$76 billion, and their fish net export revenues (exports minus imports) reached US$36 billion, higher than for all agricultural commodities combined,” the FAO NAO said.

In India, shrimp exports soared to around US$6 billion last year, pushing the country to the number one spot in terms of exports as supplies from other Asian countries eased. Thailand remains one of the world’s largest prawn exporters, a position that has drawn the attention of governments and lobbyists over allegations of slavery and human rights abuses for those working in the industry.

Seafood exports are also important for developed countries.

Norway’s seafood exports hit a record NOK 94.5 billion (US$11.73 billion) in 2017, up 3% compared with 2016, while volumes climbed 7% to 2.6 million tonnes.

Seafood exports to Asia rose 8% to NOK 18.7 billion last year as exports surged 12% to 539,000 tonnes.

“Increased seafood consumption in Asia is driven by a growing middle class and improved distribution. We expect that the growth will continue in the future,” Norway’s Seafood Council said when it released the figures in January.

The surge in volumes was buoyed after airlines including Saudi Arabian Cargo and Turkish Airlines added freight capacity to lift seafood cargoes last year.

Emirates Airlines said seafood, ranging from Skipjack Tuna from the Maldives to American Lobster from Boston, was increasingly being handled through its exclusive freighter hub at Al Maktoum International-Dubai World Central.

The airline even produced an animated infographic chronicling the journey of a lobster from the icy-cold waters outside Boston to lobster-loving destinations in Asia to highlight the increased role seafood shipments have at SkyCentral.

Ocean carriers from Maersk Line, the world’s biggest, to smaller intra-Asian carriers like Gold Star Line highlighted the importance of fish and other seafood to their cargo mix and revenues.

Seafood is among the top five highest volume products for refrigerated container cargos, according to maritime consultant Drewry.

Reefer demand rose 5-6% over the last five years, compared with 2-3% for dry freight containers, even though reefer boxes only account for 7% of total container volumes, Drewry said.

This reflected demand growth in other chilled cargoes such as fruit, vegetables and meat, not just seafood.

The growth in seafood has led carriers to launch new services while firms have developed new technologies to facilitate the seafood trade.

French liner company CMA CGM developed its Aquaviva container to transport live lobsters by sea at the instigation of the carrier’s head Jacques Saadé.

The containers allow lobsters, which traditionally have been transported frozen or live on a block of ice by air, to be carried in optimal conditions with no break from their natural habitat, CMA CGM said.

“The new containers are filled with salt water, the temperature of which is maintained by reefer technologies employed by CMA CGM and recreate the lobster’s natural habitat. Each animal has its own individual space as it does when lying low under a rock on the seabed,” said Alexis Michel, the carrier’s senior Vice President logistics, containers, intermodal and reefer.

The Aquaviva container allowed CMA CGM to break into shipping live lobsters from Canada to Europe, charging a premium at rates similar to airfreight but with zero mortality.

New technologies have also seen Singapore-based Daikin Reefer develop active controlled atmosphere (CA) systems for containers.

“Daikin’s new Active CA technology is the only active, rather than passive, technology on the market,” says Ah Huat Goh, Daikin Reefer global marketing general manager.

This injects humidity into the container, boosting nitrogen levels.

Both systems will help ocean carriers compete against air carriers for refrigerated cargoes including fish and seafood in what is a booming market.