Scallops and sprats – can foodservice be the saviour of UK seafood?

New trade barriers and reluctance among supermarkets to stock lesser-known species has made the out-of-home sector key to the fortunes of domestic fisheries. Nick Hughes reports.

It’s been a choppy few years for the UK seafood sector. The industry is still reeling from a post-Brexit trade deal that many believe sold fisheries down the river. While industry groups broadly welcomed a new Fisheries Act that passed control of UK waters back to governments at Westminster and Holyrood, they argue that regulatory autonomy was instantly undermined by a Trade and Cooperation Agreement that ceded access to UK waters to EU fleets. 

“In reality we are a coastal state with our hands tied behind our backs,” Elspeth MacDonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, told a recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on next steps for UK fisheries.

The sector is also battling claims made in last year’s hit Netflix documentary Seaspiracy – that eating seafood is fundamentally unsustainable due to the social and environmental harm caused by industrial fishing.

Heaped on top of that is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on sales of UK-caught seafood to the out-of-home market. Data from industry body Seafish showed that in the month of April 2019 out-of-home seafood sales were worth £1bn, but during the first lockdown in April 2020 this had slumped to just £200m.

On a full year basis, 2020 seafood sales in out-of-home outlets fell 39% on 2019 levels.

Retail sales grew 11% during the same period, but this did little to ease the pain felt by UK fishing fleets landing their catch in UK ports who rely heavily on foodservice outlets to purchase stocks that are not otherwise exported.

Trade is beginning to rebound with foodservice servings in Q3 2021 reaching 95% of those in Q3 2019, according to Seafish. But with exports now subject to greater red tape due to Brexit, and industry bodies and the government keen to promote more consumption of UK caught fish, foodservice is set to become an even more important outlet for domestic species – provided consumers can be persuaded to eat them.

Supply paradox

The hospitality sector is key for the UK fishing industry in part because of a supply and demand paradox whereby most of the catch is exported and most of what’s eaten is imported. British consumers have historically favoured the so-called ‘big five’ species of seafood – tuna, cod, salmon, haddock and prawns – which between them dominate consumption volumes.

Tuna and warm water prawns are not species that exist in UK waters, while the cod and haddock that are in UK waters are nowhere near as plentiful (and stocks are depleted) as the volumes we consume. As a result, the seafood supplied into supermarkets is dominated by large scale imports from countries like Norway, Iceland and Vietnam, farmed salmon from Scotland, and fish originating in countries like America or Russia that is often then processed in China before arriving in the UK as frozen blocks to be turned into products like fish fingers.

By contrast, around 80% of what the UK catches – the most common species include herring, mackerel, scallops and nephrops (lobster) – is exported, primarily to the EU where demand for these species is greater.

For the remaining volume, foodservice is a key outlet for several reasons: people are generally more open to trying unfamiliar species of fish when someone else is cooking it for them; and the lack of significant processing capacity in the UK means that fish landed at UK ports are less likely to end up in supermarkets where requirements are largely for filleted, pre-packaged, canned or frozen products.

Climate credentials

Speaking at the Westminster Forum, Mike Rowe, director for marine and Fisheries at Defra, revealed that the government is scaling up work to encourage the domestic consumption of seafood, while also working with the industry to unlock and expand export markets. “There is definitely something around tapping into that consciousness of food, food provenance and also climate change and the effects of climate change, to really showcase domestic seafood produce as a low carbon alternative to other protein sources, whatever they may be,” Rowe said.

Whether locally caught seafood is always the low-carbon option is moot. On the face of it, removing the emissions associated with transporting fish halfway around the world is good for the planet, but as Marine Conservation Society (MCS) chief executive, Sandy Luk, pointed out later in the conference the method of capture is also a key consideration: “It's not just the carbon emissions, it's also the impacts on our blue carbon stores in the sea,” said Luk who noted that bottom trawling, for example, can destroy the seabed which is a vital store of carbon.

Research published last year in the journal Fisheries Research showed that some Scottish-caught fish, like herring, mackerel and blue whiting, have a lower carbon footprint and environmental impact than farmed salmon, demersal fish and shellfish. “Scottish-caught pelagic fish can be considered a climate smart, low carbon food source that can contribute to achieving national goals for decarbonisation,” the authors wrote.

Sea state

The provenance angle – supporting a British industry in its hour of need – is perhaps equally if not more compelling for foodservice buyers. But businesses promoting UK-caught seafood as a responsible alternative to the big five will still need to ensure the fish they are buying is sustainably sourced.

Luk said that in UK seas “a third of our fish stocks […] are fished at healthy levels, but a third are overfished and for a third we don't even know in what state they're at”.

The Times recently reported a warning from the Blue Marine Foundation that UK cod stocks could fall to a record low after UK and EU fishing ministers set catch limits for all five of the UK’s cod populations above the level advised by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an independent scientific body.

“Yet again the country’s favourite fish are being sacrificed for profits and the gap between political rhetoric and actual decisions is growing ever larger,” Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation told the paper.

So what should foodservice businesses who want to serve UK-caught sustainable seafood be buying? The MCS’s Good Fish Guide lists red-rated ‘fish to avoid’ that cause most environmental damage (or where population sizes are dangerously low) alongside green-rated ‘best choice’ seafood which has the lowest impact on seas.

The latest guide recommends ways in which businesses and consumers can swap out the big five for lesser-known, more sustainable, often domestically-caught alternatives. Recipes which call for fish like cod and haddock could instead be replaced with hake – a meaty white fish, caught in the UK, with impressive sustainability credentials (Cornish hake recently achieved certification by the Marine Stewardship Council). In place of warm-water king and tiger prawns the MCS recommends choosing UK rope-grown mussels. Haddock can be swapped for Dover sole from the western English Channel, where stocks are said to be booming, while scallops, sprat and plaice are also being championed as more sustainable options.

The MCS also recommends swapping out salmon – of which some farmed stocks have been linked with pollution of Scottish lochs and unsustainable use of wild fish as feed – for rainbow trout farmed in freshwater ponds in the UK which is considered versatile, meaty and flavourful and is already proving popular among leading chefs, according to the MCS.

Slow burn

Even if restaurants and caterers can be persuaded to put these species on their menus, can the British public be persuaded to ditch their favoured fish? Speaking at the Westminster forum, Andrew Kuyk, director general of the UK Seafood Industry Alliance, noted how efforts to encourage greater consumption of UK species have historically been a “very long, slow burn”. He expressed scepticism over the idea there is suddenly going to be large scale substitution of species that will transform the consumer landscape.

Defra’s Rowe alluded to Seafish’s Love Seafood campaign as an example of the work being done to promote UK seafood. Launched in 2020, the campaign aims to reframe the nation’s view of seafood and encourage consumers in the UK to eat more fish and shellfish over the next 20 years. But Seafish’s remit is to support the whole of the seafood supply chain – not just the bits within the UK’s borders – and as such says it needs to strike a balance when developing marketing content around specific species. “This involves both engaging consumers with species they are already comfortable with and encouraging them to try something new,” it says on its website.

Nor does it seem likely that retailers will be at the vanguard of moves to promote local, sustainable seafood. “It's very difficult for a supermarket to take a well selling profitable line off their shelf to make space for something which has not got that track record, which may be less appealing and less profitable, on which they may have to take a short to medium term loss in order to change a market,” said Kuyk.

With all this in mind, it looks like the responsibility will fall on the foodservice sector to put UK-caught sustainable seafood on the menu, and on the map.

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