The seafood industry is under pressure to improve sustainability - and increase supply. The only solution is to persuade British consumers to try new species
With wild fish stocks under pressure, and some of the most important food species subject to precautionary quotas, the seafood industry faces a new challenge - to satisfy the world's growing appetite for fish. Population growth and the emergence of high-value markets in Asia and central Europe are adding to the squeeze. With the world's oceans never likely to exceed an annual sustainable harvest of a hundred million tonnes, they cannot indefinitely satisfy a world market growing at about 10% a year.
Farmed fish have the potential to bridge the emerging gap between supply and demand. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing protein industry on the planet - up 9% every year since 1975. China and other south-east Asian producers offer farmed species such as tilapia, basa and cobia as alternatives to the world's staple whitefish favourites such as cod and haddock. These species are as tasty and nutritious as more traditionally popular whitefish and the US and Continental Europe have embraced them in both retail and foodservice environments. The farmed species are also good news because they don't need high inputs of fishmeal and oil made from wild-caught fish. Tilapia, for example, can require just 1kg of wild fish to grow 100kg of farmed fish.
Yet the British market has been slow to respond to this global trend. Always notoriously conservative in their fish-eating habits, Brits have clung steadfastly to cod and haddock while their stateside and Continental cousins enjoy robust market growth in species such as tilapia and basa. Is this inertia symptomatic of a resistance to the concept of farmed fish or simply a feature of our deep resistance to change in our eating habits?
Farmed Atlantic salmon is a success story for UK aquaculture, rivalling cod as the nation's favourite fish. But when fresh salmon entered the mainstream market in the late 1980s it wasn't competing with an affordable and widely available 'wild' salmon alternative but against canned grocery fish. Now it enjoys a major position in the fresh fish market to which its 'farmed' status does not appear to have been an impediment.
Any new whitefish species competing for a place on our dinner plates has to start to displace established wild-caught 'Fish & Chip' favourites. Whereas farmed salmon had the advantage that canned salmon was already an established tea-time sandwich favourite and familiar on the weekly shopping list, tilapia is not a recognised staple of the British shopper. The Brits have a deeply traditional attitude towards seafood and distinct national and regional preferences.
Nevertheless, the twin pressures of wild-fish supply and growth in global demand mean that a responsible marketplace is duty-bound to promote new species - and particularly farmed ones. The promotion of 'more of the same' does not constitute a responsible strategy. Seafood retailers, brand owners and foodservice outlets must strive to encourage the public to eat a more diverse range of species. This will allow us all to enjoy the health benefits of eating fish while avoiding the depletion of our traditional favourites.
So come on Britain, does anybody fancy a nice portion of tilapia and chips? Try it - you might like it.n
Mike Mitchell is head of seafood sustainability at the Foodvest Group, parent company of Young's Seafood and The Seafood Company in the UK