Five experts from the fish and seafood sector share their views on ‘Horsegate’, the Common Fisheries Policy, Hugh’s Fish Fight, rising fish prices, shifts in consumption, sustainability and marketing to young people

Our panel of experts: Jeremy Ryland Langley (JRL), specialist buyer, fish and shellfish, Waitrose; Johan Kvalheim (JK), UK director, Norwegian Seafood Council; Peter Hajipieris (PH), chief technical, sustainability & external affairs officer, Birds Eye Iglo; Paul Williams (PW), chief executive, Seafish; and Toby Middleton (TM), UK country manager, Marine Stewardship Council.

The meat industry has had its annus horribilis this year with the horsemeat scandal. Which areas of the seafood sector could do with cleaning up their act?

PW: The seafood industry doesn’t have the problem of substitution of what, in the UK, would be regarded as non-food species into meals, but there have been seafood mislabelling issues. We have to be aware that there are people now actively looking for the next news story of, for example, chip shops or restaurants that are selling pangasius as cod.

PH: Adding chemicals to boost fish yields and mislabelling of fish products belong to a bygone era – not in today’s modern fish industry. In recent times the fish industry has focused on sustainable fisheries’ development, but we should never be complacent about the need to maintain fundamental standards of safety, quality and integrity.

JK: The horsemeat scandal is a good example of the importance of having a transparent and traceable supply chain. Norway is fully committed to traceability, so retailers and consumers know where and when their fish is caught.

What is the most pressing industry issue right now?

PW: Profitability; the squeeze is on throughout the supply chain. British fishermen are facing low demand and low prices from overseas markets and plentiful supplies of white fish internationally are leading to low prices for UK fish, but processors are also squeezed by retailers that are themselves reacting to tough market conditions.

“Adding chemicals to boost fish yields and mislabelling of fish products belong to a bygone era – not in today’s modern fish industry”

Peter Hajipieris

JRL: The sustainability of the feed ingredients used in carnivorous fish feed diets. The use of replacement diets through the partial substitution of marine ingredients with vegetable alternatives will continue to grow, but this does present a new set of challenges. We all must ensure that the vegetarian ingredients used are sustainable in their own right.

PH: The challenge of delivering high quality and sustainability at affordable prices. Fish is a precious resource and we need to work harder to find better ways of communicating what an excellent combination of versatility, nutrition and value it represents against other proteins.

The Common Fisheries Policy is in the final throes of approval. How will the new CFP affect the supply chain, prices and consumption?

PW: If there is a reduction in the average size of fish landed, or the amount of fish landed, as a consequence of the discards ban, the average quayside price for those species may fall in the short term. However, changes to prices at the quayside are not always transferred through to the consumer.

PH: Overall one would expect there to be greater stability in supply and increased choice for the consumer as a consequence – if the industry can get the product in front of consumers in the right condition and format. Some species will be more suited to listings on chilled counters than in the frozen segments.

JK: We hope the changes to the CFP will improve the credibility of our sector and that in turn will encourage consumers who have stopped eating species of fish due to the negative press.

What one input threatens to add the most cost to the seafood supply chain over the next five years.?

JRL: Availability of raw material over the next 20 years is probably the biggest challenge we face – in less than 20 years, an additional 40 million tonnes of seafood will be required to meet the demands of an ever-growing world population [UNFAO]. Wild capture fisheries are already being fished to their maximum and although aquaculture continues to grow, it may have difficulty keeping pace with global demand. We may experience a reduction in availability leading to inflation of raw material prices.

“Availability of raw material over the next 20 years is probably the biggest challenge we face”

Jeremy Ryland Langley

JK: Starting at the very beginning of the chain  – the fishermen – it is mainly the price of fuel and the cost of bait that concerns this group. As Norwegian fishermen see these costs increase, they have to work harder to ensure that these costs are not passed down the supply chain and on to the end consumer.  

PH: There is not one simple answer but more a combination of a few – the global rise in demand for seafood, volatile fuel costs and the trend towards higher supply chain verification costs such as third party certification, which are all combining to increase the cost of seafood products for the shopper.

PW: Recent increases in fuel prices and low quayside prices for fish mean many businesses are currently going through a very difficult phase.

How concerned are you by recent increases in fish prices? 

PH: We are always worried about fish prices – it is the last hunted food, after all. Aquaculture will help smooth this and as more fisheries become engaged in sustainability we hope this will help supplies.

JRL: Market prices for farmed salmon and warmwater prawns have risen over the past few months, but as of yet we are not seeing any significant movement in retail prices. How long this will continue is difficult to say, but we do feel it is important that we do all we can to ensure that any increases in retail prices are kept to a minimum to ensure that we can continue to offer our customers high-quality seafood at a price they can afford.

TM: One of the great things about sustainable fish is the large variety of MSC choices now available – with both expensive and more economical options on shelves. I think Justin King summed it up brilliantly when he addressed the City at the Green Mondays sustainability event in October last year: “The idea that people who’ve got less care less is out of touch with how people really feel and behave, and misjudges the British public.”

On balance, have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his Fish Fight been a force for good or bad in the industry?

PW: Overall, Hugh’s been a force for good. His campaign on discards had real influence with politicians – we also shouldn’t forget how long he has been promoting cooking and eating fish. That said, his recent Save our Seas campaign was misguided, not in suggesting that Marine Conservation Zones were needed, but in trying to push for instant implementation of every potential MCZ.

JRL: We may not agree with all the points that Hugh raised in his recent Fish Fight campaign but we support any initiative that raises awareness of the issues surrounding the CFP. We do support the recent ban on discards, but it is also important to develop methods and gear that enable a more effective catch and reduce the catching of non-targeted species.

“Overall, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign has been a force for good”

Paul Williams

JK: Hugh has done some good in terms of bringing issues affecting the fishing industry into the mainstream, but recommendations to eat alternative species that are not monitored could be detrimental to fish stocks, shifting the problem rather than solving it. Consumers must instead be encouraged to buy from fisheries that are well-regulated and monitored.

PH: Eradicating discards is a complex issue but through Hugh’s campaign consumers became aware of a wasteful practice that did not make sense to them. Birds Eye was the first company to praise Hugh for using celebrity to highlight an issue we care about deeply – fish resources utilisation.

TM: Once again, Fish Fight has raised the profile of seafood sustainability among consumers. It’s too early to see if that’s had an impact on sales this year but it has helped to strengthen the case for seafood businesses to have an explicit, consumer-facing position on seafood sustainability.

To what extent are we seeing any real and lasting shift in consumption outside of the ‘big five’ species of cod, haddock, prawns, salmon and tuna?

JRL: We are not currently experiencing any significant shifts, but we are seeing increased demand for certain shellfish such as king scallops (volumes are up by 52% year-on-year) and lobster tails (up 40%). Squid is very popular (up 29%) and we are also seeing strong demand for plaice (up 51%) and more exotic species such as mahi mahi (up 33%).

PW: There’s no doubt there are now more species available to consumers, and we have seen increases in consumption of mussels, sea bass, sea bream, and pollock. However, consumers need to be encouraged to try products that aren’t within their comfort zone. Species that aren’t in the traditional big five are usually great value.

PH: Birds Eye Omega-3 Fish Fingers paved the way for this shift by using Alaska pollock and now the species is mainstream in the enrobed value-added segment as a sustainable alternative to cod and haddock. Pangasius (also known as river cobbler) still appears in various value-added forms, albeit not to the extent once predicted.

JK: These species are classed as the big five because they are British favourites, so rather than discouraging the public from eating them, we need to encourage consumers to buy them from sustainable sources – such as Norway.

Where do the greatest opportunities lie for new product development?

JRL: NPD should focus on making it as easy as possible for our customers through the development of simple added-value products, such as fish or shellfish with a sauce, marinade or butter. Recently we have seen huge demand for fish thanks to our Cod in the Bag promotion and the marketing of our Garnish & Go service available from the fish counter.

PW: It should focus on the current trends for ethnic recipes, moving away from traditional flavour combinations. And, to increase the category’s share of the evening meal market, and appeal to families with young children, seafood has to be seen as an easy and exciting option.

PH: Undoubtedly, fish recipes in various flavour formats, such as those under Birds Eye’s Bake to Perfection brand, present many opportunities to meet the consumer need for a quicker-cooking fish dish that requires little handling or preparation.

TM: We’re seeing the greatest opportunities around sustainability. More people are interested in the provenance and sustainability of the fish they buy. At the MSC, we’ve seen sales of MSC-certified seafood double over the past two years and the current year’s figures are showing further growth on top of that.

Is the industry more sustainable (economically and environmentally) than it was five years ago?

TM: Yes, unequivocally. For example, in 2007, we had just over 200 products on the UK market with below-11% awareness of the MSC. Now, over 30% of those who buy fish can recognise the label and that’s mainly thanks to the huge shift towards demonstrably sustainable seafood.

PW: Some important fish stocks have higher biomass now than they did five years ago, North Sea cod, for instance, thus giving consumers increased confidence. Recovering fish stocks should also help with business sustainability.

PH: The fish industry is definitely more sustainable than it was across our key supply chains – we have now moved on from the basics of traceability and Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fish to certifying sustainability – but the various standards are increasingly bureaucratic and in some cases not pragmatic. This risks pricing sustainability verification out of the market.

What is your company or organisation doing to encourage younger consumers to eat fish?

PW: We’re running pilot programmes to bring health messages to classrooms and promoting health benefits to mums via fishisthedish.co.uk. This activity is also supported by Seafish’s Healthy Happy Hearts initiative, which challenges families to add fish to their diets twice a week.

PH: Clarence the Polar Bear has been very busy advocating fish fingers to younger generations. We hope the recent Birds Eye launches of our fish fingers with a new packaging look and the first-to-market Fish Fillet Burger will help increase fish consumption at family teatimes among kids and teens.

TM: Through our Fish and Kids project, certified sustainable fish is now being served in a fifth of the nation’s primary schools. That’s more than 4,000 schools and 800,000 children being offered MSC-certified fish each week. They’re also learning about sustainable seafood in their lessons, with integrated lesson plans through fishandkids.org.

Topics