Fishermen are the last remaining hunter gatherers in our food system and, increasingly, even they are turning to fish farming (farmed fish and seafood accounts for close to half our world’s seafood consumption). The popular image is of a fiercely-independent, gnarled, bearded guy, often short of a digit or two, in oilskins and a sou’wester bending into a gale. This may still be true but he better be competent in fishing law and regulations as sea fishing has been wrapped in politics and legislation for decades (do you remember the UK and Iceland cod wars?). The principal driver of regulation has been concern about over-fishing and allocating dwindling supplies between nations and fishing businesses. As ever, imposing quotas on fish catch has had unwanted consequences, such as the wasting of secondary or under-sized fish – the so-called “bycatch” problem. As a result of all this, special interest groups and concerned consumers have ensured that sustainable fishing and sustainable seafood consumption has long had a high public profile. Surveys reflect the success of this pressure and consumer concerns about “the world running out of fish” are pervasive.
Marks and Spencer was the first of the UK food retailers to take fish sustainability seriously. The famous M&S “Plan A” was launched 8 years ago and has evolved as a business plan recognizing that the world is increasingly resource constrained and that M&S customers want their favourite retailer to act responsibly on their behalf. In 2015, all of the M&S fish and seafood offer is from sustainable sources. Does every customer understand what Plan A is all about? Likely not but it isn’t vital – it places M&S in the top league of socially-conscious global businesses and it pleases its customers and influential special interest groups.
Waving the sustainable fish banner is far from just the prerogative of the premium retailers. Hard discounter Lidl may be the cheapest source of fish but it also has sustainable credentials testament to the effectiveness of media active chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the ubiquitous Jamie Oliver:
- the redoubtable Hugh launched his “Fish Fight” campaign in 2010 to change EU policy and regulations on fish discards – he was successful and hundreds of thousands of consumers supported him;
- Jamie Oliver backed Sainsbury’s “Switch the Fish” campaign which set out to expand the UK’s fish consumer’s repertoire of fish purchases – 80+% of UK seafood sales comprise 5 species (viz. cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns) and Sainsbury’s offered shoppers a free portion of an alternative “under-used” fish such as coley and hake to those willing to try such exotica!
Greenpeace ranks the major grocery retailers on how they are doing on fish sustainability issues. In Canada, for example, Safeway gains the plaudits while Costco is the recipient of brickbats! In an era where value (aka being low-priced) is vital, walking the talk on more esoteric values is increasingly influential when earning the trust and loyalty of shoppers.
Sustainable sourcing for fish and seafood by grocers has gone mainstream. So, problem solved and the oceans are set to produce ample stocks for a fish protein hungry expanding world? Not just yet! Sustainability claims do not provide a marketing advantage, rather they are a requirement to be in the fish business. A proliferation of sustainability schemes which are understood by few muddy the oceans and obfuscate the purchase decision for shoppers who, in the UK in particular, have little knowledge about buying and preparing fish and a more likely to eat it out than in so that the selection and preparation decisions are in the hands of the chef. It is in food service that the biggest problems on fish sustainability lie. Fish fraud is pervasive across the globe – wrap the product in breadcrumbs and cover with a sauce and who knows where the raw material came from and whether it was what is promised on the menu!
Britain’s number 1 tuna brand, John West, is currently under attack by activists for “secretly ditching a promise to save dolphins, sharks and turtles from the (tuna) fishing nets”. Founded over a century ago (and, now, owned by Thai Union Group), John West had promised that by 2017 it would source 100% of its tuna sustainably. It’s a reminder that, generally, under-promising and over-delivering is a better policy! Lily white Marks and Spencer do not sell John West tuna because “it does not fit our ethical sourcing standards”. Or in the USA, there’s a Presidential Task Force on Fish Fraud and for good reason – a restaurant in New York City was fined for selling garlic-dusted pig anus rings instead of the calamari it promised! These days, increasing transparency and traceability in the food supply chain is so essential to building trust in our industry. It takes decades to build trust and seconds to destroy it – just ask the most recent past-Chairman of Volkswagen!