Australian diners could be enjoying cut-price rock lobster this Christmas after an apparent crackdown on smuggling the crustaceans into China disrupted the country's largest export market.
Up to 80 per cent of Australia's live lobster sales are sent to Hong Kong buyers, lobster fishermen and exporters said yesterday, who then smuggle them onto the Chinese mainland to avoid tariffs.
Chinese officials periodically disrupt the trade, but they have almost completely blocked imports from Australia for the past two weeks, leaving live lobsters to pile up in tanks where they are caught in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
''The way in which the lobster get into Shenzhen, they are smuggled across the border into China, which is not a good situation,'' said Nic Sofoulis, the executive officer of the Western Rock Lobster Council.
Mr Sofoulis said it was unclear why the trade had been disrupted, but Chinese officials had long been aware of the Hong Kong route. ''It is just the kickbacks to customs officials that occur.''
The government was last night appealing for calm in an industry which is a valuable source of export income. There are concerns that publicising the smuggling route to China could embarrass Beijing into taking more substantial measures to block the trade.
''We do really good legitimate trade with China,'' said Stephen Moriarty, the owner of Southern Waters Marine Products, one of the largest South Australian lobster exporters.
''If some Chinese buyers skirt tariffs then it can be uncomfortable for our relationship.''
Exports to China and Hong Kong this year have been worth about $300 million. For Australian residents, the crackdown could create a glut on the local market.
''I already rang a person in Sydney and said if I can pick the lobster up cheap, they can pay $30,'' said Ken Smith, the export manager of Tony Garth Seafoods in Tasmania. ''On Saturday lobster was selling for more than $50 into Sydney. There is talk the price could be $20.''