But starting around 2000, China began paying more for live lobsters, and ordering more. That led to a near-total reliance on that market and a sense of complacency: By the beginning of this year, 95 percent of Australia’s spiny lobsters were being shipped to sellers and restaurants in China.
“We all talked about different strategies to overcome the problem, to not be so reliant on China,” Mr. Camarda said. “We just didn’t get around to it.”
And they still haven’t, even after the need for diversification hit like a hammer on Jan. 25.
That’s when China, in the midst of its outbreak, stopped buying. Officials shut down the wet markets that sell fresh meat, vegetables and seafood, forcing the entire fleet of lobster boats up and down Australia’s west coast — all 234 — to stop fishing. More than 2,000 people found themselves without work.
Australia’s lobster processors tried to quickly diversify, calling buyers in every country they had ever worked with, reaching back to contacts from decades earlier. The industry association pleaded with the Australian government for help: requesting a larger quota for the year, an extension of the season and more freedom to sell directly to the public, all of which were approved by fisheries managers.
But none of it did much good for Mr. Camarda. While certain food exports to China from other parts of the world increased — chicken meat from Brazil, for example — only a few boats went out in February, March and April, pulling in very little.
Mr. Camarda returned to the water only about a month ago. Orders to his company, Neptune 3, are starting to come in again from China, at prices that are roughly half what they were in January. The orders aren’t anywhere near as large, either, but the industry has coalesced around trying to rebuild its ties with China, rather than looking elsewhere.
“Even if prices are low and the amount of product is down, we need to find a way to service that market, because providing that market is what works for us,” said Matt Taylor, the chief executive of Western Rock Lobster, the industry’s professional association.