COMMENT: The UK fishing industry is feeling the squeeze not only from declining fish stocks but from retailers and consumers who want certified, sustainable fish. Industry players must adapt to more sustainable and traceable options to survive, writes John Willis, director of research at Planet Tracker

The fact that fishing and seafood remain sticking points as the UK and EU engage in frantic last-minute negotiations to agree a trade deal is partly testimony to the vital role they play in the UK food supply chain. In 2019, there were approximately 12,000 fishers on UK registered vessels, landing 622 tonnes of seafood valued at £987m, although an 11% decrease in quantity from 2018.

Whatever the outcome of the talks, it is clear that ocean fishing is on an unsustainable course, with rising demand for certified fish and falling supply in UK waters.

The UK exports most of its seafood catch to EU neighbours and then imports fish for domestic consumption. Industry players are beginning to struggle as the UK catch fails to satisfy the demands of European consumers and retailers in terms of sustainability and traceability.

Post-Brexit, the UK has the opportunity to recover and to reap the benefit from its natural resources, but only if there is successful intervention with sustainable and traceable solutions.

Cod is an important fish for UK diets and fishing, and its story exemplifies how overfishing can lead to ecological decline and financial risk

In 2019, the UK exported 70% of its seafood to Europe and Asia, with an end value of over £2 billion. On the flip side, the UK sources the majority of its cod from overseas – over 90% imported from Iceland, China and the EU. Cod is an important fish for UK diets and within UK fishing, and its story exemplifies exactly how overfishing can lead to ecological decline and financial risk.

With the ongoing disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on international trade, the UK fishing industry has had to deal with turbulent market conditions. The demand from export markets and local restaurants dried up, causing a shift in the fish species that are sold locally. The typically expensive seafood products destined for export markets, such as dover sole, lobster or crab, are now sold domestically at bargain prices.

UK fisheries are depleted and overfished, with cod stocks in Rockall, the North Sea, the English Channel and Cornwall particularly degraded. Why is this the case?

For one, the industry is subject to only basic sustainability principles at a regulatory level. What’s more, fishing quotas have been set above the scientifically recommended level. For example, over a 20-year period, the UK overfished cod more than any other EU member state, with over 1,759,000 tonnes of catch above the scientific advice.

Over 20 years, the UK caught 1,759,000 tonnes of cod above the scientific advice. (Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

As a result, UK cod currently receives the lowest possible rating in the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide, classed as “fish to avoid”. This fails to satisfy the sustainable and traceable expectations of European consumers. UK retailers are also looking to expand their offerings of certified fish but unable to buy British fish that meets their customers’ expectations – and as a result, industry players are beginning to struggle.

And if this problem is not enough, the UK fishing industry risks falling further behind in terms of market access and through the removal of the basic sustainability principles in current legislation. Post-Brexit, fisheries will also have to adapt to the loss of funding, with Scottish fisheries requiring £62m in annual support to replace the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which could decrease competitiveness further.

In order to continue to cater to the EU markets, the UK fishing industry needs to become more sustainable through regulation informed by science-based targets. The road to sustainability requires accurately monitoring fish stocks and setting quotas within sustainable limits as well as enforcing those catch limits. The solutions do not necessarily require additional technology, but the enforcement of science-based regulation.

If the UK doesn’t adopt tighter seafood sustainability commitments, industry players may struggle to find receptive markets

That said, the sector could benefit from investing in greater monitoring software and digital ledger technology that would increase the traceability of fish from sea to plate. Industry-wide implementation of traceability would help not only help verify sustainability claims, but also avoid exposure to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and reduce product recalls and investor risks. If the UK doesn’t adopt tighter seafood sustainability commitments and trade disruptions continue, industry players may struggle to find both receptive domestic and foreign markets.

It is in the best interest of industry players to adapt to sustainable principles and recover the depleted stocks as this will restore, not only the UK food chain, but trade, long-term revenue and investor returns.

The need for this will only grow as the effects of climate change, such as temperatures and acidification, degrade what little is left. Indeed, Planet Tracker estimates that if historic trends continue and coastal ecological health continues declining, total production forecasts for coastal farmed Atlantic salmon to 2025 may be 6% to 8% lower than predicted, equivalent to $4.1bn – of which the UK is part.

It is undoubtedly the case that to survive, the UK’s £2bn fishing industry will have to adapt to more sustainable and traceable options. The question remains: will it be enough?

John Willis is director of research at Planet Tracker, a non-profit financial think tank aligning capital markets with planetary limits. Planet Tracker generates breakthrough analytics to redefine how financial and environmental data interact with the aim of changing the practices of financial decision makers to help avoid both environmental and financial failure.

Main picture credit: Jack Cousin/Shutterstock
sustainable fishing  UK fisheries  cod stocks  Planet Tracker  UK food supply chain  certified fish  science-based targets 

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