Many species of fish and shellfish have been going up in price in recent years. Indeed, global fish prices reached an all time high in 2013 (1). This can be seen throughout the world with the price of fish and shellfish rising across the developed and less developed world. Why is this happening? And what could the impact be for both consumers and the world’s fish stocks?
Put simply, people all around the world are eating more and more fish. People in Britain eat an average of 20kg of fish per year meaning that imported fish is needed to meet the demand – if the UK had to rely on only domestically caught fish every year then the fish supplies would run out in July (2). The problem is even more pronounced in other countries such as Spain and Portugal where people eat on average somewhere between double and treble the amount of fish that British people consume. With increasing demand in any field the price of the fixed amount of remaining resource increases. On a worldwide level this is what is happening with fish – as the demand goes up and the amount of fish in the world’s seas decreases the value of the remaining fish goes up.
The Demand for Premium Fish and Shellfish in China
Nowhere else in the world has the demand for fish increased as much as it has in China. With a booming economy and growing affluent middle class the Chinese demand for expensive seafood such as prawns, salmon, tuna and oysters has rocketed, with oyster and mussel sales increasing by 20% per year (3). This increasing demand from a country as large and highly populated as China has inflated the price of a number of high-end different species. Oysters have doubled in price over the last three years, while salmon have gone up 27% between spring/summer 2012 and 2013 (4). The demand from China has pushed up the price of salmon for UK shoppers, with salmon fillets in supermarkets going up 56% in just one year (5). Tuna is another species rising in price, with demand for this species going up due to the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi all over the world, and the health benefits that eating this species brings. Overall tuna prices went up 12% between the start of 2012 and the middle of 2013 (4).
Attempted Move Away from ‘The Big Five’
As discussed in this article the ‘Big Five’ species (cod, haddock, prawns, tuna and salmon) dominate the plates of UK consumers, account for around 60% of all seafood consumed in Britain. However, celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have promoted the consumption of other species such as mackerel, gurnard, pollock, coalfish and dab. The theory is that moving public tastes away from the overexploited Big Five and therefore allowing these species to recover, while the fishing pressure is spread across less exploited stocks. However, these campaigns often have the effect of increasing overall fish consumption. For example Waitrose reported that following Fearnley-Whittingstall’s work fish sales of bass, whiting, brill and pollock had gone up, while sales of the Big Five had remained “steady” with Asda stated that mackerel sales were up 69% but cod and haddock sales (two key species of the Big Five) had also increased. While the attempt to move consumers away from the Big Five species is laudable, and logical, it does not appear to work in the way intended, and instead seems to act as a giant advert for eating fish generally, pushing sales of all species (Big Five or not) upwards.
Disease, Accidents and Production Problems
One factor inflating the price of oysters is the oyster herpes virus which emerged in 2008. This disease infects immature oysters and according to the Sunday Times has led to the near-collapse of the French oyster industry which once supplied the world with 130,000 tons per year (4). Similarly, Shrimp Early Mortality Syndrome has led to the production of shrimps and prawns in Asian countries to fall by around 30%, which in turn has pushed prices up by an average of 22% across the world. While fish farms can produce fish at a high intensity there is a danger of disease or accidents wiping out a large number of stock which can in turn have an impact on worldwide supplies and wholesale prices. This could be seen in 2012 when the troubled Spanish commercial fishing company Pescanova suffered a major disaster when sand was accidentally sucked into the filtration system of the farm, clogging up the pipes which aerated the tanks. Around €30 million of turbot were killed in the incident, causing knock on effects with the supply chain and prices.
Other Factors – The Clampdown on Illegal Fishing
The Sunday Times columnist and author of The End of the Line Charles Clover states that the effective measures to stop illegal fishing have been a cause rising fish prices. Previously, illegally caught fish entered the market, as did blackfish (over quota fish which have been caught and not declared – see the Scottish Blackfish Scandal). This had the effect of keeping prices down by adding more fish to the market and helping to meet the demand. The elimination of these fishing practices has obviously reduced the supply of illegally caught fish. Clover stated: “Now prices are rising, it is an indication that people are fishing more within the law, and that has to be seen as a good thing” (4).
What is the Impact of Rising Fish Prices?
The rising price of fish can be either a positive move or damaging to fish stocks depending on how the situation in handled. If fish is more expensive (there is a strong argument that fish has been undervalued for a long time) it effectively means that the fishing industry can make more money catching less fish, which is certainly a good thing for fish stocks. However, this only works if there is strong regulation and real efforts to crack down on illegal fishing and undeclared blackfish catches. In badly regulated fisheries where illegal fishing is either ignored or not tackled the rising price of fish can be extremely damaging as there will be large-scale attempts to fish illegal due to the vast sums of money which can be made, and fish stocks will obviously badly suffer as a result. As it stands the only certain thing is that the rising global demand for seafood means that the prices of fish and shellfish are going to continue to rise for some time yet.
- Global Fish Prices Hit Record Levels as Demand for Premium Seafood Spikes in China – International Business Times
- We Need to Eat Less Fish – Not More Sustainable Fish – The Guardian
- FAO Fish Price Index 2013.
- Luxury Fish Hooks the World – The Sunday Times 23/6/13
- Salmon Price Leaps 56% in One Year – The Daily Mail