Expert insights

From Sea To Plate: Insights Into The Seafood Export Journey


The demand for fresh seafood products is steadily on the rise. Consumers are accustomed to the availability of a wide variety of seafood products both on the shelves of grocery stores and on restaurant menus. Consumer expectations pressure the seafood logistics industry to ensure fast and safe transportation.

Demanding logistics requirements and difficult weather and environmental conditions make seafood logistics especially challenging. To ensure the quality and freshness of seafood, the logistics behind moving the products must follow streamlined import and export procedures at a global level.

CEVA Logistics assists with seafood logistics, ensuring safe and efficient transportation from the source to distributors, often across the globe.

“Having been in the logistics industry for over fifteen years, I have observed first-hand the evolution of the seafood export/import business and the findings are quite remarkable,” said Brandon Cook, Regional Ocean Freight Leader, MEA, CEVA Logistics.

“Consumers demand a global variety of seafood, irrespective of where they are based or the season. In addition, they naturally demand that the seafood is fresh and that quality standards are high, even in remote or inland locations. This means investments in seafood exports and cold chains are inevitable.”

With seafood rising in popularity, the logistics infrastructure and innovative solutions behind seafood import and export are evolving faster than ever. The main purpose of this article is to provide insights into the logistics processes that underpin seafood transportation logistics, including modes of transportation, cold chain integrity, pre-export quality sampling, transit limitations, etc.

Seafood logistics

Seafood Logistics Via Ocean And Air Freight

Seafood is generally transported either by ocean or air freight. All seafood exported via ocean transport must be frozen due to travel duration and conditions, while seafood shipped via air is generally fresh or unfrozen. As with most air cargo, the cost is significantly higher. On average, the premium for fast delivery via air freight is more than 50% higher than sea freight, resulting in less than 10% of seafood being exported via air.

The decision to ship seafood via air or ocean freight usually depends on the type of seafood and the consumer market at the destination. There are no procedural or cost differences between shipping 100kg of red tuna and 100 kilograms of sardines in the logistics industry. However, the market rate is vastly different, thus greatly influencing the preferred shipping method.

The average transit for fresh seafood via air freight is approximately 2.5 days and involves one to two stops along the route. As for ocean freight, the average transit time is anything from 10 to 30+ days.

One of the most important aspects of seafood logistics is keeping the products at a safe temperature throughout the journey from source to destination. Fresh seafood products are packed in lightweight, styrofoam boxes with gel ice packs to retain cold chain integrity. The use of dry ice has become increasingly uncommon for seafood transportation as the chemical composition, and extremely low temperatures it creates can change the taste and texture of the products. Gel ice packs are placed above and below the seafood before the styrofoam boxes are sealed. Depending on the type of fish and box configuration on a pallet, the number of ice packs can be reduced, as the styrofoam boxes placed below can act as a ‘cooler’ to the styrofoam boxes above them. Generally, packed styrofoam boxes are at most 20kg to protect integrity.

Air freight for fresh seafood always requires a temperature between zero to five degrees Celsius during transit. Seafood freight is regularly subjected to temperature checks to ensure quality and safe handling.


Inspections and Required Documents

Before any seafood products are loaded onto the aircraft, phytosanitary inspections ensure that shipments comply with all regulations of the destination country. The check verifies that the cargo temperature is correct, and the fat percentages of the products are up to standard to ensure the seafood being exported is not premature or unfit for export. This testing occurs either at the airport or at the processing facility. The inspection takes two to four hours for sampling, testing, and issuing the required export documentation and certifications.

In addition to the phytosanitary certificate and certificate of origin, seafood exports require standard airway bills, commercial invoices and packing lists— additional requirements may apply depending on the source or destination.

A great deal of work has been done by regulatory bodies to align global air freight standards, policies and processes for the movement of seafood products around the world. Whether we export seafood from West Africa or the UAE, the processes and documentation requirements are very similar.

Look at how seafood products begin the journey to their destination. Irrespective of air or sea freight transit, all seafood products start their journey similarly. A fishing vessel will catch a particular type of fish per licensing permits and seasonal fishing restrictions. Most fishing vessels have fish cleaning and cold storage capabilities on board. Once the boats have reached the shore, seafood products are either loaded directly into a frozen reefer container, ready for export or loaded onto a truck and sent to a storage/processing/packaging facility. The seafood is cooled to zero degrees at the vessel or upon arrival at the processing facility. One of the most crucial aspects of seafood logistics is ensuring safe, temperature-controlled, and regulated logistics throughout all parts of transit.

A special piece of equipment called a fish loader is commonly used to speed up the loading process. A fish loader bridges the physical gap between the catching vessel and the export reefer container by sliding the fish on a ramp into the container. On average, it takes approximately two hours to load bulk fish into a 40ft container with a fish loader compared to five hours of manual handling.


Arrival at the Destination 

A notification about the phytosanitary inspection is issued to customs authorities before a shipment’s arrival. Perishable shipments are prioritized to reduce transit time and ensure food handling safety. For example, in many European countries, it only takes authorities approximately ten minutes to accept or decline incoming perishables, like seafood.

In the process of clearing the shipment, the inspection authorities check the incoming seafood in samples, often through mobile testing, for some of the following (depending on the destination country’s regulations):

  • General cargo accuracy and alignment with HS code
  • Traces of disease
  • Heavy metal residue
  • The available freshness of the fish
  • Antibiotics levels

The testing and clearance for seafood products are generally completed in just a few hours, while testing and consent for other products, like seeds, can take up to 14 days.

As for sea freight shipments, to avoid opening a reefer container before it has reached the destination, many wholesale seafood importers or distributors have testing capabilities at their facilities where they invite inspection authorities to wittiness the testing.

Depending on further findings, if a shipment has any irregularities, the cargo is quarantined and even destroyed.

“From my experience, the phytosanitary inspection will check a pre-determined number of boxes on each shipment, and there is a 90% pass rate. I think that the seafood industry is mature in ensuring that only quality products are exported, and the cold chain is taken very seriously,” added Keith Marshall, Air freight Leader, Middle East and Africa, CEVA Logistics.

All ground transportation for fresh fish products must be in a controlled cold chain environment with temperatures between zero to five degrees, and for container transportation of frozen fish, a generator is commonly used to control the temperature for ground transport.

In the last leg of the journey, distributors and wholesalers deliver the seafood to store chains and other sites. Fresh seafood is usually safe for two to seven days on a new counter display with regular temperature checks conducted.

To support the seafood industry’s growth, logistics companies have been creating new, innovative solutions, especially about temperature control. An example is using “Super Freezer” containers capable of carrying sashimi-grade tuna at temperatures of -40 to -60 degrees Celsius.

Similarly, the seafood industry has been experimenting with different techniques to maintain the cold chain, such as super chilling, often called partial freezing. This process involves freezing the liquid content of the seafood products and keeping the temperature between -1 to -2 degrees Celsius whilst the solid parts appear unfrozen. Once the liquid components are frozen, they become cooler than the solid seafood.

Further techniques are continuously being tested to regulate and manage seafood temperature for transportation. Cold chain and investments in cold chain infrastructure remain the most critical challenge for seafood exportation.



Although export procedures and seafood testing are relatively standardized and seamless, major improvement opportunities for cold chain solutions and infrastructure are on the horizon.

Global import/export processes, customs approvals and sampling techniques have been adopted to cater to seafood transportation’s unique and sensitive nature.

The availability of fast trans-loading equipment from fishing vessels to reefer containers significantly reduces exposure to high temperatures. Cooling techniques, packaging and temperature control processes are continuously improving and optimizing.

With a rising global population and increase in popularity, the investment in sustainable, cold chain solutions for seafood and other products is bound to soar.



Originally written by the team of CEVA Logistics. Edited by Vibha Mehta for Logistics News ME July 2023 Issue.