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. At the simplest level the demand for fish is increasing but fish stocks are declining, meaning that prices are going up across the world.
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, eels, 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 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. Unfortunately these campaigns often have the effect of increasing overall fish consumption. For example Waitrose reported that following Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign sales of bass, whiting, brill and pollock had gone up as intended but sales of the Big Five species had remained “steady.” 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. Instead it seems to act as a very effective advert for eating fish generally, pushing sales of all species (Big Five included) upwards.
Problems of Fish Farming
The price of cultivated and farmed seafood can also be impacted by unexpected and unpredictable events. In 2008 a strain of the herpes virus ravaged the French oyster industry which was one of the world’s main oyster producers, supplying 130,000 tons per year (4). As oysters take three years to reach a marketable size the loss of an entire generation of oysters will have an impact on the global supply for years to come, and destroyed much of the French oyster industry. 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. Fish farms have been seen as a way of producing a steady and sustainable supply of fish for human consumption, with Scotland’s fish farming industry often promoted as an economic success story. However, recent years have seen the reality of fish farming exposed, with open-water fish farms producing high levels pollution and suffering from parasitic infestations and high fish mortality. The amount of wild caught fish needed to feed farmed fish also means that fish farms have a major impact on wild fish stocks. All of this means that fish farming – or at least the type of fish farming which is currently being carried out across most of the world – in not the answer to restoring the world’s fish stocks.
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 seen as either a positive development 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 fewer 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 it makes illegal fishing more lucrative and worthwhile. 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.
- Singleton, M. Global Fish Prices Hit Record Levels as Demand for Premium Seafood Spikes in China – International Business Times, 18/6/13.
- Esteban, A. We Need to Eat Less Fish – Not More Sustainable Fish – The Guardian, 28/1/11.
- 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, 11/6/2013.
Note: This article was written and uploaded in 2013. Changes and developments which have taken place since then will not be reflected above.