Fishing rights are regularly in the news as the UK & EU trade negotiations rumble on. While fishing is a relatively small economic issue, it’s certainly a big political one. Any research on the topic will quickly reveal huge industry complexities, a host of different organisations, sustainability issues and historical policies and licenses – all permed with hot multi-national politics.
Little discussed however is the relationship between UK fishing and the UK consumer, and at the heart of this story is a tale of separation, abandonment and decline.
Let’s start with the decline. In 1895 the seas were open, fishing villages flourished all around our isles, and what was landed by local boats was what you ate. Peak UK fishing. In Skye the staple diet was salmon. If you were indentured to work on a farm part of the deal was you could be fed salmon no more than 4 times a week. In London you ate a lot of eels, and somewhat reluctantly, pike. Since 1895 it’s all been downhill. The total number of fishermen employed in the UK has fallen from just under 50,000 in 1938 to less than 12,000 today. The number of fishing vessels in the UK fleet has fallen by 30% since 1996 – to some 7,000 vessels.
So, what is behind this decline? One key culprit is demand. The top two fish we land are mackerel and herring – the perfect oily fish for a healthy diet, but very much out of fashion in the UK. Also, despite cooking being an increasingly popular pastime, many people simply don’t know their fish, or how to cook it. We export fabulous crab, scallops and langoustines to the Mediterranean and then fly out there to enjoy them at a restaurant.
But the biggest factor behind the decline is the separation of UK consumers from their own produce. The Marine Conservation Society explains that “we currently export around 75% of fish caught and landed in the UK, but we’re the ninth largest importer of fish in the world, with around 70% of the seafood value entering the UK fish supply chain coming from overseas”.
This two-way motorway of fish is absurd: economically wrong and also an ecological disaster. We are net importers of fish, while the fishmonger with fresh fish down the road is in decline. We generally export in bulk, and buy ‘consumer packaged’, losing out on the processing jobs. We import from places as far away as China, India and Vietnam, at a horrendous cost in product miles: marine diesel, bulk packaging, and waste incurred during transport.
Top 10 sources of UK fish imports, ranked by their distance from the UK.
So, some pundits might say that the politicians have a history of abandoning UK Fishing, but the facts show us that as a whole the UK population are often less supportive of our fishing industry than they realise.
It’s therefore quite easy to be pessimistic about the future of the UK Fishing industry, however that would be wrong. Compared to the EU countries, the UK fleet has the second-largest total catch (in terms of landed weight) and the second-largest fleet size (in gross tonnage terms). Over 80% by value of the UK fleet’s landings are from UK waters. A further factor is that despite the fall in the number of fishermen this has been counterbalanced to some extent by increased productivity with modern equipment and trawlers.
But imagine how much better the outlook would be if we reconnected with UK fishing? As individual consumers we all have the power to help change this. Eating locally caught fish would reduce our product miles and provide crucial support for the UK’s fishing industry and their local communities. Alan McCulla, CEO of the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, spells out the opportunity, “we need people to care where their fish comes from, and for us the direct-to-consumer market is growing in importance, particularly as people are worried about sustainability”.
The five most popular fish in the UK are also the UK’s top 5 fish imports: salmon, cod, tuna, prawns, and haddock, but there are other excellent fish which are sustainable UK-caught alternatives: such as Megrim (from Rockall, the northern North Sea, and West of Scotland), Turbot (North Sea), Coley (the North Sea and Rockall) and Lemon Sole (the English Channel).
How to support UK fishing
There are three ways to support UK fishing: visit your local fishmonger, ask at the supermarket fresh fish counter, or get your fish ‘fresh direct’ from harbourside businesses and collectives. All UK-landed fish can be found at youk.co, which offers a unique approach to finding sustainable UK-landed fish.
Author: Derek Poots, Founder of YouK